Earlier this week in Sydney, our police fatally shot a woman who was wielding a knife. It later transpired that she had Asperger's syndrome. I didn't comment on it at the time as I was quite busy at work -- and I was also awaiting the backlash of comments to the effect that;
"all people with Asperger's syndrome can become knife wielding maniacs"
To my surprise and delight, those responses weren't forthcoming.
Instead our media mainly discussed the difficulties that police face in situations like this and the problems that people with Asperger's syndrome have when it comes to understanding police direction. It was a very mature response from our media.
I'm not going to go over things here because I didn't know Courtney, suffice to say that my heart goes out to Courtney Topic's family. It was real tragedy and I wish them all best in the long road of coming to terms with it.
What I do want to do however, is to recount a police-experience of my own in the hope that it advances the understanding of how people with Asperger's syndrome can can get those vital and seemingly obvious police communications so wrong.
The event took place about twenty years ago during my part-time university days. I was driving home late one night when the police radar caught me speeding. In those days before speed cameras, the police car had to give chase. I was pretty focused on driving home and I believe that they chased me for a couple of kilometers before I even realized that they were there. I pulled into the extreme outer lane and slowed (but not stopped) to let them pass. It was probably another kilometer before I understood that I wasn't in the way of their journey, I was their target.
Needless to say, by the time they got the desired response out of me, I suspect that they were probably already more than a little annoyed.
As I pulled over, I began to develop a bit of a panic, not a full on meltdown, though it might not have taken much but a panic nevertheless.. I have difficulty dealing with authority figures, not just police but all kinds. For example, I've always found talking to the CEO's of various companies I've worked for to be extremely harrowing and confrontational. It's not unusual and I frequently experience an alarming loss of executive functioning when I'm face-to-face with authority figures, resulting in poor on-the-spot decision making.
The show was by Allan Pease and it was on "Body Language". There was a whole section in there on talking to superiors in a way that minimized their aggression.
From memory, it said to ensure that your body was in a lower position and to go to them, rather than making them come to you. Thus allowing them to remain behind their "powerful desk".
Naturally, I decided to apply to this situation.
Unfortunately, the police had parked quite a way behind me -- now that I think about it, it's probably some sort of Police procedure. They were also taking their time getting out -- again, now that I think about it, they were probably "running my plates". I decided that I'd better hurry if I was to cover the distance and get to them before they came to me.
I sprang from the car and hurried towards them. They shouted something but of course, being deaf (and focused on the task) I couldn't hear them -- no matter, I was sure I'd hear when I got closer. Their doors started opening "damn", I thought, "I'm running out of time". I increased my pace....
Instead of getting out, the police crouched down behind their doors. They shouted again but I couldn't hear. It was dark too and they had headlights on, so I couldn't really see what was happening. Finally as I drew very near, I realized that they were shouting STOP! and then I realized that they had drawn their weapons.
I can't remember a great deal about the rest of the night aside from the fact that the police were very annoyed with me. They asked me why I reacted the way I did as I said that I was trying to save them from having to walk to me. They were still very suspicious but I couldn't tell them about the psychology because that would give away my "advantage".
In the end I was fined, I lost points off my licence and they conducted a very intensive search of my car. They were most disappointed (and confused) that they didn't find anything suspicious there.
Of course, after the fact, I can see how my best intentions may have seemed threatening but at the time, from my point of view, it was the police who escalated things out of control. One of the things that people with Asperger's syndrome often do is assume that others can understand what is in their minds without actually communicating.
I was lucky that day that the police officers involved were calmer than I. Sometimes, even the slightest miscommunication can end in tragedy.