Guilty by reason of public autism?
First of all, a disclaimer: I’ve never taken part in the whole cop/ticket inspector bashing thing. The way I see it, they’re just doing their jobs.
The story I’m about to tell isn’t intended as an attack on the authorities, or even the people involved, but rather as evidence that awareness of autism is still something we need to improve. I’m also not saying this only happens to people with autism, or that it was a targeted act of discrimination. It was a misunderstanding, but for me, a traumatic one.
The other night, I went to a friend’s birthday dinner. Afterwards, at about 9:15pm, I walked to the station to catch a train home. (For the record, I was completely sober, unless its possible to get drunk from a strawberry milkshake)
I’d been sitting down for three hours, so my legs needed stretching like a Uni student in exams week needs a caffeine drip. So I walked to the end of the platform, and paced back and forth, happily lost in my own thoughts, waiting for the train.
After a minute or so, I saw two of the new “protective services” guys who hang around train stations now, (not sure if they count as cops) coming towards me. I assumed they wanted to check my Myki (for those of you outside Melbourne/Victoria/Australia, a Myki is an electronic card you use to pay for trains) or something, so I walked to meet them.
As I reached them, they immediately asked me in a rather intimidating manner; “where’s the bottle?” I told them I didn’t have one. “We saw you hiding something behind your leg,” he responded. I knew immediately what had happened; one of my autistic ticks is that I often hold my hands quite rigidly, in this case down by my thighs. I explained this to them, trying to remain as calm and polite as possible, but my anxiety, another by-product of my autism, made me visibly nervous, and I worried that I appeared guilty because of this.
They told me they were going to have a look around, and that if they found a bottle, I was in trouble. By this point, I was nauseous with fear. Authority figures and getting in trouble have terrified me since I was a child, and these guys were treating me like I was guilty until proven innocent.
They started shining their torches into the bushes near the platform, and into the rubbish bins. I could hardly breathe; what if someone else had dumped a bottle in the bin hours ago, or in the bushes days ago? My skin crawled with the pins and needles of adrenaline.
To my immense relief, they found nothing, and walked away. I was left to collect the tattered shreds of my nerves, and to face the equally uncomfortable realization that my autism had almost gotten me in trouble for something I didn’t do.
Now, I don’t know what the story was with these guys; maybe they’d been having a rough night dealing with aggressive drunks before spotting me. However, they certainly knew little about autism, as they didn’t seem to even consider my explanation for why I was holding my hands funny.
Since this event, I’ve felt nervous and unsafe on train platforms and around the protective services, which has made travelling by public transport an even more intimidating process than it already was.
Greater awareness and understanding of autism can prevent incidents like this, and that’s one of the key goals of the organization I work for, the I Can Network.