It had been a good day at the park. A miracle day, in fact, for our family. Our 5-year-old son, who is moderately autistic and prone to violent outbursts and self-injurious behavior, had sailed through the outing without a meltdown. So it was all the more shocking when the police approached us.
It was a Sunday, four days before Thanksgiving, and my mom was in town visiting. My son had a good morning, and feeling encouraged by that, we selected a new park to visit, the boardwalk on Lady Bird Lake in Austin.
We had been struggling for weeks with getting (and keeping) my son dressed. He had been in a protest phase with his clothes and diaper, but on this morning, he not only let us dress him, he even selected his pants. Sure, they were a size too small and the legs crept up like high waters, but we were thrilled he had chosen them himself.
When we arrived at the park, a sharp breeze from the lake blasted us, so my husband reached into my son’s backpack for a heavy sweater. Another miracle: He allowed my husband to pull the sweater on him, something he normally resists.
He found an area of the boardwalk that he liked, and he walked around while we hovered over him, doing our best to keep him out of the path of joggers and bikers. He found a pile of rocks and delighted at chucking them in the water, his latest favorite activity. I snapped pictures of him with my mom and my husband, and an hour calmly passed.
I could feel people in the park watching us, and for a moment I looked at my son through their eyes: a little boy emitting strange sounds that aren’t quite words while running around in funny-looking pants. His baby-fine strawberry blonde hair was tangled in some places and my mom remarked we would work on it that evening. Because he also has sensory processing disorder, he can’t stand having his hair brushed. Also, he is terrified of scissors, so my mom has become his official hairdresser when she is in town. My husband and I assist, holding his hands out of harm’s way and steadying his head as my mother trims his hair.
When we announced to my son that it was time to go — setting the timer on our iPhone as his therapists had suggested to help him handle the transition, counting down the final seconds for him until the alert sounded — he took my husband’s hand and willingly turned away from the water. Another miracle.
We headed back to the car. My husband walked ahead with my son while my mom and I high-fived at what a great day it had been. It was the first time we had left a park without him fighting us, and she was marveling over that. We looked up and noticed two police officers striding toward us. I assumed they would keep walking past us, but one of the officers stopped and removed his sunglasses.
“Can we talk to you a second,” he asked, “about your son?”
My husband called out over his shoulder, “He’s autistic,” and kept walking my son to the car.
The officer’s face burned with embarrassment. I assumed he was getting ready to inform me that rock-throwing wasn’t allowed, but he said, “We got a call about your son. The people who called were worried that because of his hair, and because of his pants, that you weren’t taking good care of him.”
Now my faced burned with anger and my stomach was sick with shock.
“He’s autistic,” I told them, “and because of his severe sensory issues, we have difficulty brushing and cutting his hair.”
Both officers nodded their heads in understanding.
“You’re talking about my grandson,” my mother hissed.
“Yes, there’s clearly nothing going on here,” the red-faced officer said.
“I’m so glad you were called to investigate this instead of more serious crimes,” I said, tears threatening to strangle my voice.
“It’s clearly just a case of bed-head,” the same officer said by way of apology. “Sorry to have bothered you.”
We bid them goodbye and joined my husband and son and walked back to our car.
They were worried you weren’t taking good care of him.
Those words rang in my head for the rest of the day and for many days afterward. Taking good care of our son is the focus of our lives. My husband and I aren’t perfect parents (who is?), but since our son was diagnosed with autism when he was 3, and, at the same time, began banging his head against any surface he could find — sometimes as often as a hundred times a day — we’ve spent every waking moment trying to keep him safe.
His behaviors have greatly improved, thanks to intensive one-one-one therapy, but he is still nonverbal for the most part and has daily (sometimes hourly) meltdowns that require endless patience and skill to navigate. We have sought the best specialists, advocated for the most effective therapy, tried alternative treatments such as herbal medicine and listening therapy, and barred screen time, all in the hopes of helping him learn to communicate, stop harming himself and reach his potential. My husband rises early each morning before work to prepare his food for the day, in accordance with a doctor-recommended special diet.
To suggest that a parent of a special-needs child isn’t taking good enough care of their kid is an insult that overlooks their ceaseless worrying, constant advocating and exhaustive caretaking.
And honestly, of all of the moments we’ve had in public I can’t believe this one triggered a call of concern to the police.
I think of past times, when my husband carried our son, kicking and screaming, away from the park or the bookstore while being head-butted, and my husband silently endured the blows. Or the times our son has grabbed the door frame of the car, fighting being put in his car seat. What must that look like? An attempted kidnapping? I remember the time I was alone with him and struggled to buckle him in his car seat as he wrestled away from me, slamming his head against the car window. I was wearing sweatpants and the tie at the waist had come undone, and in my effort to keep him from seriously hurting himself, the sweats slipped down around my ankles, taking my underwear with them. There I was, in a church parking lot without pants, trying to force a young child into a car. In that panicked moment, though, I would have relished the help of a concerned citizen or police officer.
The police were called on us because my son was having a bad hair day. What does this say about our society?
Two months have passed and the initial sting of those words has faded, but I worry about the future times — because surely there will be more outrageous meltdowns in public — and wonder when the stares of strangers will become calls of concern to the police. I now scan the faces of all passersby, and inform those who dare to stare too long that our son is autistic. During these times I wish there were a blinking sign over my son’s head, announcing his invisible disability so I don’t have to worry about what others are thinking in that critical moment when I should solely be focused on saving my son from himself.
We need less worry and more support. We need less judgment and more acceptance. We need less of what my friend Sara Zaske, the parenting writer, has called “the destructive police-calling culture” and more true help and awareness. I would even argue that while it’s fine and necessary to help autistics adapt to a world that they perceive as hostile, we should also be actively trying to make the world a less hostile and more forgiving place for people who act and look a little different, and for those who love and care for them.