Black Autistic Children Like Ryan Gainer Are Dying at the Hands of Police

For the parents and professionals who care for Black autistic children, Ryan Gainer's death highlights how frightening police interactions can be.

<p>Gina Ferazzi/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images</p>

Gina Ferazzi/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Fact checked by Elizabeth Brownfield

On March 9, San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call placed by a member of the Gainer family. Reportedly, the caller wanted help with 15-year-old Ryan Gainer, who was diagnosed as autistic, and was having an episode. When law enforcement arrived at the Gainer home, Ryan quickly approached the first deputy. He was holding a 5-foot-long gardening tool. “You’re going to get shot!” the deputy yelled at Ryan before shooting him. A second deputy also fired at the teen.

Ryan was taken to a hospital where he “succumbed to his injuries,” according to a statement released by police.

Too often, Black neurodivergent children experience violence—or even death at the hands of law enforcement.

The Danger of Perceptions

Dr. Shanay Rowe of Belmont Behavioral Health System, whose work assists autistic and neurodivergent children, says this story kept her up at night. “It’s heartbreaking and upsetting. I work in an inpatient psychiatric facility that has a unit specifically for autistic and neurodivergent children. I have been physically attacked by autistic children and it has never been my instinct to use harmful force,” she says.

”It is so hard for me to wrap my mind around this happening,” says Dr. Rowe. “There are so many holds and restraints that can be used when someone is a danger to themselves or others, and none of them were used in this situation.”

For educator and artist Jennifer White-Johnson and her husband Kevin Johnson Jr., Ryan’s story hits too close to home. As parents to an autistic Black son, Kevin III who is lovingly known as Knox, hearing how Ryan Gainer was treated by those who were called to help was deeply tragic.

“This is a nightmare,” says White-Johnson who is also neurodivergent and autistic. “Sadly, this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time, the Black community has seen similar and repeated acts of injustice. Whether it’s in the community, workplace, or classroom, Black Autistics are very used to being subjected to adultification and dehumanization.”

Johnson agrees. “I see my son in the tragedy. I see the same exuberance and light and joy in Knox being snuffed out because someone doesn't understand how to communicate with him,” he says. “I see his emotions being invalidated because someone feels threatened by him in a moment where if they took a minute to commit to hearing him then maybe things could de-escalate.”

So, why didn’t officers de-escalate? Possibly because they may not have even known how to engage with neurodiversity. According to The Marshall Project, there are some programs in place to assist law enforcement when encountering neurodivergent people, but there are simply not enough officers trained to deal with situations like that of Ryan Gainer. Currently, in the United States, only eight states require any training to police officers on encounters with autistic individuals.

At the same time, according to the Office of Justice Programs, neurodivergent individuals are seven times more likely to encounter law enforcement than “neurotypical” individuals. These encounters are too often harmful or deadly. The behaviors that officers are trained to view as “suspicious” mirror many typical behaviors of autistic individuals. According to The National Library of Medicine, for autistic individuals, “Unfamiliar situations, such as an interaction with police personnel, can exacerbate an individual’s anxiety, impacting on behaviour and functioning.”

Behaviors, like avoiding eye contact or not complying with orders, could cause autistic individuals to be misperceived by police who are trained to see these kinds of behaviors as signs of a problem. Johnson acknowledges the dangerous outcomes of these misunderstandings.

“What a parent sees as their child's way of navigating a challenging sensory experience [is] seen as suspicious or non-compliant conduct in the eyes of law enforcement unfamiliar with autism. These misunderstandings have led to uses of force, traumatic restraints, and in the most devastating cases, lives being cut short due to tragic overreactions,” she says.

Combine these factors with systemic discrimination and the danger for Black families becomes even more clear. Young Black men are nearly three times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than their White counterparts. While there is no reliable database to track just how many neurodiverse people are shot by law enforcement, the National Association of Mental Illness reported that almost half of Black people who die at the hands of police are disabled. The lack of training combined with risks, exposure, and misunderstandings too often puts Black autistic people at risk.

A Pattern of Behavior

Dr. Rowe believes that a lack of cultural competency along with a lack of the knowledge needed to assist autistic children in crisis is what makes these situations so perilous. “There are certainly unique cultural needs, norms, and nuances that are not taken into consideration when designing interventions and autism services. These interventions aren’t tested in Black communities and create this gap in cultural competency and access to adequate services for individuals with autism.”

“Black children are diagnosed later than their white peers which means they receive services later. It’s no secret that a delay in services can allow maladaptive behavior to dominate one’s daily living,” says Dr. Rowe. “When cops approach Black children with autism these maladaptive behaviors are framed as aggressive and violent as opposed to a cry or attempt to communicate a need.”

In November of last year, 14-year-old Avarius Thompson, who was diagnosed with autism, was coming home after picking up some snacks when Dolton, Illinois police officers tased him. According to officers, Avarius “fit the description” of some young men they were trying to apprehend. It was a case of mistaken identity. Avarius was treated at a local hospital before being taken in by police and later released that same day.

In August of 2017, 18-year-old Ricardo Hayes who was also diagnosed as autistic, was running when he encountered an off-duty Chicago officer. Moments later, Ricardo was shot in the chest. The officer initially lied about the altercation, claiming Ricardo had a weapon. An investigation later proved Ricardo was unarmed. Ricardo survived the encounter, but too many are not so lucky.

Stephon Watts, a 15-year-old Black teen diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, was killed by police in February of 2012 by Calumet City police officers. Despite having their home flagged as one with a person with a disability, officers who arrived at the home were unprepared. Officers arrived to see Stephon using a butter knife to pry open the basement door where his father locked away all of the computer equipment as punishment for a school incident. As testified by the officers, no one told Stephon to drop the knife and no de-escalation tactics were used. According to accounts, one officer yelled “Knife!” and two shots fired by officers took Stephon’s life. Both of Stephon’s parents were home at the time.

Too often our children are perceived as adults, and that perception is deadly. “He was killed under similar circumstances as Ryan,” White-Johnson says as she reflects on Stephon Watts. “Stephon Watts was five foot seven and 205 lbs. Cops don’t see a Black body that needs to be handled with care; they see an instant threat, a criminal, an animal that needs to be put down.”

What Can the Parents of Black Autistic Children Do?

Johnson says parents must talk to their neurodiverse children to prepare them for reality. “Though it's something I often struggle with, it's advisable to have frank age-appropriate conversations about racism, ableism, and the realities of policing from a young age,” says Johnson. “Role-playing encounters can help prepare autistic children for these types of interactions. I speak with Knox about knowing and understanding his rights regarding consent for things like searches and only answering obligatory questions when asked.”

Help them practice sharing their name, diagnosis, and age with law enforcement. Let them know that it’s okay to tell officers if they do not understand what is going on or if they do not understand what they are being asked to do. Teach your child to have their hands free and open during such encounters. Tell them to keep their hands off of the officer as well.

For White-Johnson, the power lies in empowering neurodiverse people to lead. “We put our son in spaces where he’s encouraged to practice self-advocacy tactics; we train him to be a leader in the community; we have to show non-autistic families that we can advocate for ourselves,”

In the event of a crisis, always ask for the Crisis Response Team or Crisis Intervention Team. They are specially trained officers prepared for mental health issues. First Responders can also have your information on file in case of a crisis. This flags your address and alerts other officers as well. It’s also a good idea to use identifiers such as placards on display in the home’s windows or stickers on your vehicle.

Dr. Rowe thinks that crisis management should be left to the community until law enforcement is better prepared to handle them. “I think the better conversation is how can we get law enforcement to understand the differing populations they may face during their daily routines. Or better yet, what alternatives do parents have when there is a crisis so that law enforcement isn’t the first line of defense-escalation?”

Dr. Rowe says that police training often doesn’t get to the root of the issue in these kinds of situations and communities are best equipped to support neurodiverse neighbors.

“With autism specifically, maladaptive behaviors are always to communicate a need, maybe even a cry for help. And reframing that will impact how you approach the situation,” says Dr. Rowe. “In an ideal community, law enforcement would be called when laws need to be enforced, not when children are in crisis.”

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