Oakland mother worries for her Black son with severe autism, possible police encounters

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Sitting in the dining room of her home in Oakland, Elna Hall is on a Zoom call with her youngest son. "Did you have a great day at school?" she asks with a big smile on her face.

Elna's son attends a school out of state that specializes in working with young people on the autism spectrum.

"I love you, Mom," he says as they end the call.

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"He's just a great kid. He's sweet and he's kind and even though his language is very limited, he's very emotionally expressive. He loves to build, loves to draw, loves to sing and listen to music."

Elna is obviously very protective of her son, so when they moved to a new neighborhood a few years ago in a different city, she made it a point to take him to the police station and introduce them to her youngest son. "The fear was that, number one, he wouldn't be assumed to be a resident of the community. That, number two, he'd be seen as a threat, as a stranger, as someone who could potentially be violent or cause harm. And none of these things are true."

Research shows that approximately 20% of youth with autism have been stopped and questioned by the police.*

"For me as a mother, I had an enormous amount of fear of what could potentially go wrong and the situations that he could be in where he absolutely couldn't protect himself. Being Black and having autism means there's always more to think about," said Elna.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, Black people with disabilities are about 55% more likely to be arrested. "He's already vulnerable because he's a Black male, and he's that much more vulnerable because he's so limited in his ability to communicate and in his ability to regulate his behavior."

Ryan, Elna's oldest son, is a student at Howard University. He too sees the potential for danger for his younger brother.

"When you don't have those communication abilities, that already puts you in a huge barrier. Police officers aren't trained to know how to respond to that. He can't verbally respond to the police," Ryan says.

As of 2018, only 27 states and the District of Columbia require police officers to be trained on responding to situation involving people with behavioral health issues, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures.

Elna explains, "He doesn't understand what his rights are. How can he protect himself if he doesn't understand what his rights are? If they're asking him questions and he doesn't understand what the questions are, or doesn't have the verbal ability to answer, how can he advocate for himself?"

"We made a conscious effort to bring our son to the police station...to let them know who he is, what his limitations are, and what our expectations were for how they treat him in the community."

Elna says the experience they had in introducing their son to the local police department was positive, but she felt that that couldn't be a justification for letting her guard down. She admits that it sometimes feels unfair to be in a position of having to advocate for a vulnerable family member but says, "The reality of it is: if you're a Black person in this country, you're already aware that that's the added burden that we carry."

She hopes that if police continue to be called in situations of mental or behavioral health crises, they have to be better informed and trained on how to do it safely.

"I hope that we're making it easier for the next Black boy that comes into that community...that faces the same sort of unfair scrutiny," she says, "When you hear mothers like me talk about autism awareness, what we're talking about is everybody in a community understanding what autism is, understanding how that might show up in your neighbor."

She adds, "The more people who have a better understanding of exactly what it is, we start to create communities that are safer places for people on the autism spectrum."

Elna believes that real change will come with the difficult conversations that people are starting to have, but adds, "Black people can't change this, Black people don't own the power structures to change this. This is about white allies coming forward, acknowledging what's real, and making real changes to systems. That's driven through honest conversation about what's happening."

See extraordinary personal journeys of Black families and individuals across America rising above obstacles and pushing through systemic racism to achieve personal and professional success in "Our America: Living While Black." Watch all this week on ABC7 News.

*Rava J, Shattuck P, Rast J, Roux A. The Prevalence and Correlates of Involvement in the Criminal Justice System Among Youth on the Autism Spectrum. J Autism Dev Disord. 2017 Feb;47(2):340-346. doi: 10.1007/s10803-016-2958-3. PMID: 27844248.

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