Out Of The Shadows: Black Families With Autism Speak Out, Eric Evans on Training Police

Kim Riley, founder of The Transition Academy (an organization dedicated to ensuring students with disabilities have the opportunity to explore college and career options after high school), hosted a webinar earlier this month in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s murder. The webinar was titled Out Of The Shadows: Black Families With Autism Speak Out. One of her guests was Eric Evans, a Black man diagnosed with Asperger’s.

Eric is a Communication Specialist from Philadelphia with an interest in developing innovative solutions to communication-based conflicts, as well as curriculum development for educational seminars ranging from mental disabilities to community outreach. He has developed training programs for police to learn to identify Autistic civilians and interact with them in safe and appropriate ways. A transcript of Eric’s talk is provided here, with his permission.

The full video of the webinar can be found here. Eric’s talk can be found at 23:00.

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Eric: My name is Eric Evans. I’m from the suburban Philadelphia area. That’s where I live now. I grew up in the inner city. Pretty much what I do is I develop communication of [inaudible] for local law enforcement who may interact with some civilians diagnosed with mental disabilities and intellectual barriers. What I do mostly is I’m primarily focused on people on the spectrum. That’s just a little about myself. In regards to what I’m currently working on now, I’ll just start reading and listing off a few things.

I essentially train officers to not just interact with people on the spectrum and to deescalate situations, but I also do it from a standpoint of identifying people on the spectrum. The reason why I have to make that clear difference is because we, as Black people, are at the highest rate of not just going undiagnosed on the spectrum, but going undiagnosed with a bunch of disabilities across the board. Unfortunately, a lot of us in our community don’t really see the need or the fix or the urgency to confirming our kids are diagnosed with some things because we have so many other things on our plate. It’s hard to juggle, you know what I mean? What’s more important or not? So essentially, I’m just trying to train officers to be not only less violent, but also life savers as well.

The reason why I got into all this is because–I’m sorry, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this already–I have Asperger’s. I’m on the autism spectrum, but I’m high-functioning though, so I pretty much use my voice as I guess as a voice for the voiceless. I wasn’t always super-verbal. When I was younger, I was pretty docile. I didn’t like talking to people. I didn’t like interacting. But after a few years of therapy, I gathered myself and kind of mastered the art of speaking in that sense [25:54]…I’m essentially the Chief Officer by analyzing and identifying the spectrum range, acknowledgment of the communication barriers, properly interpreting body language and facial expressions, using emotional support systems and objects to prevent sensory overload, understanding impulsive reactions verses articulate response, and I also do interactive simulation and sensory workshops. So pretty much what I do is put police officers in the shoes of people on the spectrum, and also show them how uncomfortable people on the spectrum can be in certain situations.

So pretty much my three objectives are: the opportunity to train public service professionals–I had been given that. So, a little story. When I was in community college in Philadelphia, I was like, afraid, honestly, for the most part. My mom didn’t tell me about my diagnosis until I was probably in my early teens. And I did have a lot on my plate already. I don’t think she wanted me to have like, I guess, a second thought to make me even more different than I already was. But once I found out about my condition as an early teen, I was mature enough to understand what it was and what I could do to help myself. So essentially, the proposal that I have that’s actually getting a lot of attention from government officials is an ID badge or a logo badge. What I want to do is I want to make it possible for all children or all kids with autism to have a logo or discreet badge on their state ID that tells the officer where on the spectrum they lie or what type of disability they have in order to prevent escalated situations in routine traffic stops or any type of idea or any type of environment where a police officer asks for identification to know who they’re speaking to. They would know immediately that this person is on the spectrum, and they’re trained on how to deal with these things.

I remember I was asked…sorry, I’m going all over the place. I say that to say that when I was scared, from like seeing all the things in the news and whatever. It kind of broke me. It made me really frightened [28:29]. I felt hopeless. I’ll just read something I wrote down, only because someone recently asked me why did I get into this. So the proposal details the specifics were not meant with the intention of being financially profitable or monopolized. The original, current, and forever intention of this proposal was survival, unfortunately.

One of the most dominant traits of mine as a result of being on the spectrum is my excessive borderline obsession with preparation. I’m sure a lot of the mothers are familiar with their kids maybe wanting to be prepared or not wanting to be knocked off their schedule, or something like that. From preparing to put on my shoes to preparing an exit strategy once I enter a crowded venue of people. Some parents have a conversation with their children about public perception of them being Black, Latino, Islamic, Asian, Jewish, an amputee, having a skin condition, being a woman, masculine, feminine, or obese, then and how they’re going to need to prepare to counteract discrimination and unprovoked ridicule based on their natural appearance. Some of these bring more trouble than others, unfortunately, as you know. The thing that these all have in common is that these are visible differences. But what about when your differences are seemingly invisible? People have physical differences which brings shallow division [29:549] among misguided and miseducated. But those people who have said differences can also spot others with the same or similar differences. Like you ladies explained before, as Black people we can identify with other Black people what we’re going through. And we can do that because we can obviously see if we’re Black or not. They can kind of build a sense of community, accountability, and support. Something that is very hard to do when your difference is invisible. But when it’s invisible, it brings another conversation to parents. Now imagine having to have both of these conversations with the same child. An individual with both physical differences that would make navigation through life tricky along with an invisible one that recalls expression difficulty. It’s a perfect storm of terror when it comes to being misunderstood as being Black and Autistic. True or false, I’ve carried that burden for years, and as a young and late teen watching the news and witnessing disturbing videos of men that looked like me being murdered or killed for simply looking like me.

I combine that with always feeling misunderstood, self-aware, and high-functioning enough to know that it’s because of my Asperger’s diagnosis, but also immensely tortured by the idea that it will forever be a part of me and I can never turn it off. It comes with gifts, but also severe limitations in a society that was not designed to even consider someone with a mind like mine to even exist.

This made my anxiety go through the roof [31:14]. I was desperate and scared for answers. I was so afraid of what seemed to be 10,000 different scenarios of going around situations in my head that ended up with me being dead at the hands of law enforcement from “concerned” neighbors. But I built up the courage to request a police academy to allow me to sit in on their teaching about communication. I figured I only felt hopeless because I didn’t know what they were looking for from a communication standpoint. And this is where my spirit kind of got crushed.

When I reached out to the local police training cadet thing at a community college in suburban Philadelphia, I told them I was on the spectrum, and seeing everything in the news, and I really just wanted to get in to see how you guys communicate to know what I should say or do in the event of getting pulled over. And this man actually told me that it wasn’t up to him and that I needed to go talk to a local government official. I went and talked with that local government official’s secretary, and she told me that there was no such thing, that that’s not the case, and it’s up to his discretion. I then went back to that man, and he just flat out rejected me. He said “No, I just won’t do it.” That crushed me at that point because I felt like me dying at this point was like written in stone, like my demise was imminent, every day that I walked out of my home because I was in this position where I’m on the spectrum and I can’t communicate effectively and he had [inaudible 32:57] specifically. And on top of that, I’m Black.

Every encounter with police felt like a close call with death. At some point, I became so afraid in college that I wrote a brief presentation outline and pitched it as a training module of some sort to the director of law enforcement of education. He agreed, and I saw a window of opportunity, an opportunity to teach and enlighten people on the plight of those on the spectrum, an opportunity to get parents of Autistic children to help have some peace of mind that there were some officers trained on-duty who understood their son or daughter, an opportunity that a high-functioning adult, such as myself, can relieve some anxiety knowing that they may not have to be super carefully or super perfectly articulate their condition to police at a traffic stop.

That opportunity was four years and six presentations ago, and now the opportunity is this proposal. But because of that man and the school I transferred to Mansfield University [34:00], his name is Scott Henry, he’s the director of municipality, I pitched him this idea, I didn’t know how it would go based on the last interaction, and he really encouraged me to say I had the opportunity to do this, he recognized the opportunity as someone on the spectrum, and he also recognized the opportunity of me being a man of color to do this.

 I wanted to get to a few things. I’m sorry if I’m just rambling.

Kim: No, you’re fine. This is good. You said 4 years and how many presentations ago was that?

Eric: Six

Kim: Six, okay.

Eric: Yep. So, I also wanted to talk about the double-edged sword, coming across racism while being on the spectrum verses the Black Community not really accepting or understanding what our condition is. I feel as though, within our community, the only people who really understand and accept it, unfortunately, are the people who are directly affected by it. I kind of thought about that when Clarissa was talking about people in the public staring at her and not really understanding, so I’m glad they kind of spoke about that [35:09]. One of the things that’s kind of hard for me to navigate through as I’m doing this is kind of gathering the attention of Black people because I feel as though they think it won’t happen to them, until it happens to them, and they’re unprepared and unequipped to deal with it.

Also, I wanted to thank Clarissa for speaking out. I really enjoyed her speaking and talking out about the situation regarding the DHS coming up to her house and police officers because the first thing I thought of was one of the training modules we do with the officers– we train them that sensory things such as bright lights, loud noises, commands, demands, they don’t sit well with people on the spectrum, they don’t react to them. So we have those things set up where we’ll run officers through something like they’re reciting a script. And while they’re reciting a script, and they’ll have it memorized, and we’ll be flashing lights in their face, or they’ll be three people talking at one time, anything to simulate someone on the spectrum trying to understand what a stranger is doing, that’s pretty much what we’re trying to do [36:40].

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