Police Fail Teen With Autism In Medical Emergency

Police Fail Teen With Autism In Medical Emergency

Police Fail Teen With Autism In Medical Emergency

The basic facts of this story are ones that strike the heart of every special needs parent with terror. What do you do when the police won’t listen to you in a medical emergency for a child who can’t communicate?

While I have defended the police against being ridiculed and attacked, I’m also not going to let them have a pass when they screw up. And in this story coming out of Fresno, California, it’s clear the police have no good excuse for how badly they failed a 16 year old with autism and epilepsy.

In this case, which has now begun to pick up national attention, a teenager, his mother, and his sister had all stopped for lunch at an El Loco Pollo after a doctor’s visit for the teen’s epilepsy. When the teenager went to the bathroom, he apparently suffered another seizure behind the locked bathroom door. While staff opened the door for the mother, the sister called 911 for paramedics. And this is where things start to run off the rails. Instead of paramedics, the police showed up.

Lourdes Ponce says her son had just left the doctor after suffering from epileptic seizures.”

Those seizures she says returned while he was in the restroom at the fast-food restaurant.”

“I stood outside the door, I heard him hit the floor, I tried to open the door but it was locked, that’s when I asked for help,” she says.”

Ponce says when employees unlocked the door, her son was on the ground.”

She then told her daughter to call 911.”

“We called paramedics for help, we did not call police. He was not hurting anybody, he was having a seizure,” she says.”

However, police arrived first and tried handcuffing the teen.”

Video even shows them trying to place him into the back of a patrol car.”

During that time, Ponce says her son began to panic and started to vomit.”

“He saw that my son was throwing up and instead of helping him so that he wouldn’t choke on his vomit, they had him on the ground in handcuffs,” she says.”

Ponce says she then ran to her car and got paperwork showing her son has a history of epilepsy.”

“After I showed the paperwork, EMS was able to treat him and take him to the hospital,” she says.”

The Fresno Police have made contact with the family at the hospital and given the mother a “certificate of release” – meaning that they will not be arresting the teenager once he is released from the hospital – and have issued a statement to the media:

“This case is currently under Administrative Review. The review will include the examination of all the information pertaining to the officer’s contact including Body Worn Cameras.”

There was clearly a massive screw up somewhere. The police endangered this teenager by not rendering him medical aid and instead treating him as if he were an imminent threat. They are extremely fortunate that more physical harm didn’t come to him – though the mother now reports that he is suffering from trauma after the fact, and he is having issues with accepting treatment from the hospital staff. This could have long consequences for him, both physically and emotionally.

So, where did this screw up happen? Here are a few possibilities that must be investigated:
First, that 911 call needs to be pulled. There is clearly a language barrier between the mother and police in the video, which is presumably why the sister made the 911 call. What did 911 dispatch say? If the sister asked for medical help, and the police got there first, what did they hear that made them think this was an issue for police and not emergency medical services? Was there another 911 call that came from the restaurant that made an assumption about a collapsed teenager behind a locked bathroom door? These are questions that must be answered by the administrative review.

Second, there does need to be retraining of the police in how people on the autism spectrum need to be handled. These cases have ended tragically before, because adults on the spectrum may not follow police instructions for a multitude of reasons. The problem is, of course, we are asking police to make split-second decisions in the heat of the moment, and they may not stop to consider that a failure to follow instructions isn’t an imminent threat, but an actual disability or mental illness. The last thing a police officer wants to do is hurt someone. But they also don’t want to be hurt themselves. I really do recommend that police receive some kind of instructional training on how to handle people with autism, so there can be at least the seed planted in their minds that the person who isn’t responding to a command, not making eye contact, and possibly not even using intelligible speech may not be on drugs or an imminent threat, but might be someone on the spectrum.

Third, the community must step up. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there was an additional 911 call that led police to think that the teenager – coming out of an epileptic seizure, possibly in a fugue state, disoriented, potentially combative – was a danger. If you don’t have personal experience with epilepsy, or autism, it is very hard to identify these conditions unless they fit some type of media-perpetuated sterotype. This is one of the greatest struggles of being a special needs parent. When your child is small, there is so much more grace for atypical or “naughty” behaviors. People might wince at the ability of my youngest son to shatter glass with a scream, but he’s in first grade (and thankfully, this behavior is decreasing). Society is beginning to wrap its mind around that not all children having a tantrum in public are a result of bad parenting. But when that same child having a tantrum is the same size as – or larger than – the parent, those who are witnesses to the spectacle often lose their sense of consideration. It makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t want to have to see it. Well, you know what? It’s no cakewalk for the parent, either. Fear of a public meltdown often keeps people with autism and their families socially isolated. But we HAVE to live. We DO exist. Being out in public might be difficult for everyone, but it’s harder for the ASD person than it is for the public at large. And a little more acceptance, instead of head-shaking and finger-wagging – or in the worst-case scenario, calling the police – would go a long way to the kind of societal tolerance that people espouse, but rarely practice.

This also leads to another hot-button topic within the autism community. We try to educate our kids on the spectrum to respect authority, and to look for people in uniform for help when there is an emergency. But what do we do if the police don’t understand our child and their needs? How much self-identification do we need to do in order to safeguard ourselves and our children? By identifying our child to the police as someone with autism, does this help them or hurt them in the long run? Is being proactive better than being reactive? Will this affect how the police see us, and what about potential red-flag laws? These are all murky waters for autism parents.

I really do hope that the body camera footage from the Fresno Police does cause some real apologies to be made, that the breakdown in communication between the initial 911 call and the police response can be properly identified, and that some basic training for responding to people with either autism or epilepsy can be reviewed by the police department. This was a medical emergency that got the absolute wrong response, and it should make every parent upset, special needs or not.

Featured image via Pixabay, Pixabay license

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  • Andy says:

    The police are not your friend

    • Scott says:

      Way oversimplifying there Andy, though in this case, they definitely fornicated Fido…You’re right on Deanna with all the points you make, and I really hope that in the end, this doesn’t have long term negative consequences for the boy, though i’d one more. This is a perfect example why EVERYONE should learn the language of the country in which they live. If the obviously teenage daughter has lived here long enough to speak English, then the mother damn should could have learned, if she thought it was important enough to do so…One more way we don’t do immigrants (legal or illegal) any favors by allowing them to conduct all sorts of business in languages other than English.

      • Kathy says:

        Scott, I wish more people would see your language point.

        • Scott says:

          Kathy, Thank you. I’m sure many more do than will say so, as in this PC world the left has inflicted upon us (and we have allowed), to speak the truth is to be labeled a racist, xenophobe, or whatever other slur they choose.
          The reality is, no country should cater to you, you should learn the language, customs, etc. While the police should definitely learn to deal with autistic folks, mentally ill, and other conditions over which people have no control, they should NOT have to learn other languages just because those who decide to come here are too lazy to learn ours.

      • Deanna Fisher says:

        Scott, if you listen to the video that the mother took (that she later uploaded to Facebook), you can hear her speaking very heavily accented English. And she can definitely understand the police officer who tells her that she’s “not helping the situation.” I think that in her distress and shock, it was easier to have the daughter – who clearly does speak English fluently – be the family spokesperson. I’m guessing mom was probably just too upset to feel like she could make herself clearly understood, especially on a 911 call.

        • Scott says:

          Fair point. My internet is a bit sketchy, so the video quality was lousy for me. I’m sure you’re right on the points you make, and the actions of the police do seem ridiculously out of line

  • njc says:

    The most genuine apology is a correction, so that the problem, and ones like it, will not occur again.

  • Jim says:

    Scott: “While the police should definitely learn to deal with autistic folks, mentally ill, and other conditions over which people have no control, …”

    Over many years I and other specialists in disability services here where I live in southern Australia liaised with local Police about certain clients presenting severe behaviour and/or complex psychological and developmental issues. The Police have always been cooperative as they do not want to be burdened with managing certain people when the issues are really not ‘criminal’. However when actual assaults occur, though the person presenting with development impairment does not meet the legal standard of mens rea, i.e. is not mentally fit to plead in court, Police do have to intervene and arrest the perpetrator to stop further dangerous behaviour. Those arrested who are of very limited intellect or seriously medically involved are often quickly released into secure welfare or family custody. Some do go to gaol as they are fit to plead and know what they were doing was illegal. I have, in past years briefed local Police about a certain clients living in community residential units and how to manage them, but found that there was no guarantee that the Police actually becoming involved with very difficult clients had themselves been briefed. Of course when an intellectually impaired teenage girl with a mental age of about 5 years picks up a chair and tries to ‘brain’ a police officer, there is only one outcome possible: she is restrained, handcuffed and placed in the cells. [By the way I know two local police officers who have children presenting with autism.]

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