School officials of Conroe ISD in Texas summoned police officers to apprehend a 12-year-old autistic boy named David Sims. The incident ended with him being removed from school grounds in handcuffs and being held in a juvenile detention center. His crime? Playing pretend with an imaginary gun.
In the wake of the Parkland shooting in Florida, school districts around the country have been on high alert for threats of gun violence. This vigilance is fueled by increased awareness of gun-related incidents in schools and by the revelation that the carelessness of law enforcement in Broward County allowed the shooting to occur. No one wants to make that mistake again, and understandably so. Unfortunately, in Conroe ISD, this hyper-vigilance combined with prejudice against those with special needs led to the forcible apprehension of a young boy with autism who posed no threat to anyone.
Boys have been playing pretend gun games since guns were invented. They use sticks for swords, pinecones as grenades. Ever heard of Cops and Robbers? This behavior is to be expected from boys, but the seriousness of gun violence in schools has brought about a consensus that such games should be reserved for playtime away from school grounds. I was in kindergarten when the Columbine shooting happened. That week, our teacher gathered our class in a circle and explained to us that we couldn’t make threats of any kind – even for play – because of it. Even as kindergarteners, we understood. But none of us had autism.
A hallmark of autism is difficulty in making sense of social cues and the nuances of how certain actions make people feel. For many with autism (but not all, because the range of the spectrum is so vast), it’s impossible to comprehend the abstract notion that playing pretend guns could remind people of gun violence in schools. Daniel Sims didn’t know he was being threatening.
Further explaining the reason she feels they arrested her son, she said, “Because he’s disabled. They automatically think he’s got something mental, so he might go shoot up a school.”
Her reason likely isn’t far from the truth. In all areas of society, kids with special needs are marginalized and discriminated against. Speaking from personal experience, I saw this play out in my older brother’s life. My brother has a severe case of autism, almost totally nonverbal, and the discrimination against him started in preschool when we had to unexpectedly change schools because our previous school refused to teach him. Kids would see him get on the short bus and call him a retard. When we went to the pool during the summer months, parents would literally yell at him to stop splashing (and for those wondering, these parents don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt – it’s abundantly obvious my brother has autism). One silver lining to my brother having such a severe case of autism is that he was placed in special needs classes, away from the bullies. Those who are higher-functioning, like Sims, are placed in classes with the rest of the student body and are subject to tremendous abuse and discrimination. This usually ends with tears from the victim and laughs for the bullies, but in this case, it ended with Sims in handcuffs.
Now, I doubt Sims’ teachers and the local police are evil bullies out to abuse those with special needs. But I do think there’s a dramatic lack of understanding of how to deal with things like autism because our society holds those who have it at arm’s length. Perhaps because I can’t bring myself to believe the alternative, I think Sims’ teachers honestly didn’t understand that his brain hadn’t made the connection that gun play, even pretend, can make people feel unsafe. Their first reaction was to think, “If this is how he’s acting while playing pretend, imagine what would happen if he had a real gun.” I’ll also give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt. They want to protect and serve their community, but they need to understand that autism comes with sensory perception problems. Noises, movements and physical contact can be startling and jarring. In many cases, even parents don’t realize their child has sensory problems until later in adolescence, when these stimuli trigger sudden outbursts of aggression. Handcuffing this boy and removing him in front of his classmates was entirely too severe for his situation. But that’s the thing: people don’t know his situation.
For too long, the average American has written off having to deal with those with special needs. They think, “That’s for the parents to deal with, or the special needs teachers, or those day camps they go to. This doesn’t affect me.”
Actually, it does. According to Autism Speaks, the CDC found that 1 in 59 children has an autism spectrum disorder. In your lifetime, these people have been in your classes, bagged your groceries, screened your carry-on bag as you go through airport security or even worked in your offices. You have listened to music written by people on the autism spectrum. You’ve enjoyed their art. If our society continues to operate with a total lack of understanding for this significant population, they will bear a disproportionate brunt of the costs.