An open letter to the police officer who helped my autistic son
I was sitting on the sidewalk when I suddenly realized you were standing over me. Well, not directly on the sidewalk: I was sitting on top of my kicking, screaming, 10-year-old son. I thank heaven that you were the police officer who came to the scene.
We were on Burrard Street, in the heart of downtown Vancouver, at the beginning of rush hour. Business people were streaming past, staring at our little wrestling match. I’ve learned to ignore the stares, because they keep me from doing my job: keeping my autistic son safe, even when he’s raging.
On Wednesday, he was raging at my refusal to let him watch YouTube on the way home from school. After-school YouTube time has become an important part of his transition back to school: after two years of homeschooling, he’s back in school full time, and the prospect of end-of-day YouTube helps him push through the days when his anxiety makes it hard to go to class. But on this particular day, he’d refused to go to class at all, even when I reminded him that would mean a YouTube-free afternoon.
He regretted that decision as soon as the school day ended. Just as he was getting in the car, he asked to watch YouTube on my phone, and as soon as I refused, he screamed and jumped out of the car. I chased him through the parking garage, catching up to him just as he reached the elevator. Tears streaming down his face, he begged for his YouTube time, telling me that he was afraid that without it, he’d lose his mind. When I pulled him out of the elevator and back into the garage, he lay down in the middle of the car lane, saying he would rather just die.
I stood over him, so we’d be visible to any drivers, until he was ready to get to his feet. He seemed calmer, so when he walked back to the elevator, I guessed that he was heading to his dad’s office just across the street. I followed him into the elevator, up to the office lobby, and out onto the sidewalk. It wasn’t until he was almost at the curb that I realized he was planning to throw himself into traffic. I reached him just in time. He tried to tug away, back towards the street, so I pulled him down onto the sidewalk, where I could hold onto him while calling my husband for backup.
Thankfully, these moments of existential despair don’t come around often — maybe only every month or two. When they do, it takes all my emotional strength to hold fast to whatever limit-setting has occasioned my son’s rage. I know that if I relent in the face of his threat to hurt himself, it will become his instinctive threat, and even more dangerous, his habitual thought pattern.
As our son has grown bigger, these situations have also taken a lot of physical strength. He’s now too big and strong for me to restrain with just my arms, so if he’s threatening to hurt himself, I have to pin him down. More and more often, I have wondered whether I will have to call the police to help. But I’ve been terrified to do so, because I’m worried about scaring him — or worse yet, getting into a conflict with law enforcement.
When I looked up to see a uniformed officer standing over me, I briefly thought those fears were coming true. But the police uniform and buzz cut framed the face of a kind, concerned woman.
“Is everything OK?” you asked, in a voice that was miraculously free of judgment.
“My son is autistic,” I explained. “He just tried to run into the street.”
“How can we help?” you asked.
“I just need to keep him safe until his dad gets here.”
You knelt down and spoke to him in a quiet, calm voice. You offered him a sticker, and you didn’t blink when his response was, “leave me alone, you bitch!” You just kept speaking to him quietly while he raged — and while your partner, also a woman, stood watch over the three of us. Your police car was stopped in the middle of the road, lights flashing, but neither of you were trying to rush us to a resolution.
“He’s upset because I won’t let him have YouTube, but I can’t give in,” I explained, and you nodded in a way that told me you got it, and that what I was saying made perfect sense. I was smiling despite the insanity — because if I didn’t see the humor of a wrestling match on a rush hour street, how would I survive? — but from the way you looked at me, I knew you were seeing a mom who took the situation seriously.
When my husband answered the phone you gently took over the job of restraining my son…something that no public servant has ever dared to do. We’ve had teachers and support workers tell us that they’re not allowed to touch a child, even when it’s a matter of keeping our son safe. But you held him firmly and respectfully, as gently as you could, without a trace of anger or fear on your face.
“I have a lot of experience with autistic kids,” you told me, and it showed.
When my husband arrived he took over the job of helping me restrain our little guy, who was still kicking and screaming.
“Is there anything else we can do to help?” you asked.
The only thing I wanted was your business card, so I could send you an email. If I do have to call the cops in the future, I would love your notes and name on our file. But it took another 45 minutes before our son was calm enough to get in the car and go home, and by the time we got there, I had lost your card.
I know how lucky I was to get that kind of police response: as a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman, I got the benefit of many possible doubts about why I was holding my kid down on the sidewalk. I also felt incredibly grateful for our recent autism diagnosis, which makes the situation much easier to explain.
But what made me feel really lucky was encountering you, a police officer who approached our family with concern and calm. You were kindness, and for my son, you were safety.
And sometimes safety is the one thing I fear I can’t provide my growing boy. It was great to know that in that particular moment, somebody had my back. It’s what every parent of a special needs child — every parent, period — should be able to count on.
Update: The Vancouver Police Department helped me find our helpful officers! A huge thank you to Constables Karma and Jackie.