Lorraine Spencer has been watching the news from Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black 18-year-old was shot and killed by police, and worrying about her own son's safety. Jermaine is 16 years old and bi-racial, with a dark complexion. He also has autism and wants to be more independent, especially as he nears adulthood.
"It's my worst nightmare," she says. "I have the issue with him not understanding, possibly, a command to put your hands up or to get on the ground. So, yes, it's scary."
According to the advocacy group Autism Unites, people with autism spectrum disorders are seven times more likely to interact with police over their lifetimes, compared with people without a cognitive disorder.
That's particularly scary for parents already concerned about racial profiling. Michelle Smith's 28-year-old son Chris Akubuilo has severe autism and often struggles with both comprehension and speaking.
"He's black, male and autistic," she says. "[I] never know if he'll be accosted. You ask questions later and you shoot first. It's happened too many times all over this nation."
In an effort to keep their kids safe, these mothers and their sons attended a seminar this week in Culver City, Calif., for people with autism spectrum disorders.
The goal is to teach people with autism how to interact safely with police — the event was co-sponsored by local law enforcement — and avoid misunderstandings that could lead to confusion or violence. Over the course of two hours, participants watch a movie called Be Safe, which explains basic vocabulary like "law" and "arrest" and includes dramatizations of police interactions.
Between sections of the movie, police and participants also do role-playing exercises. In one, police and people with autism pair off to practice scenarios such as how to ask for help getting home, or what to do if someone is harassing you.
Police officers also explain their uniforms. "Never, ever, ever touch an officer's gun," Lieutenant Jason Sims explains to the group.
All the exercises are meant to make police seem less threatening, and to provide a forum for people to ask officers questions.
The seminar was organized in large part by Emily Iland, who has an autistic son and also teaches special education at California State University. The seminar is the civilian counterpart to a larger curriculum for law enforcement, which is free for all local police departments and state law enforcement agencies in California.
The biggest police department to pick it up so far is one with a history of a less-than-perfect relationship with the community: the LAPD. More than half its officers have now gotten some training about the symptoms of cognitive disabilities like autism. As part of a partnership with the Autism Society of Los Angeles, many officers also spend an entire day with autistic teens.
The Director of Police Training for the LAPD, Luann Pannell, says that program has helped officers feel less threatened by people with autism who, for example, might not make eye contact during an interaction.
"What we want to do is take the officers beyond a 5-minute encounter," she explains. "In policing, a lot of these encounters happen very quickly."
Programs like this have drawn national attention. In July, the Justice Department announced it's working on a full training curriculum to educate local police officers about cognitive disorders.
TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
Ferguson's troubles have prompted many a conversation about race and prejudice in this country, especially when it comes to law enforcement. Entire communities are talking about how cops interact with citizens and how citizens deal with cops. NPR's Rebecca Hersher spent some time this week with a group that is very concerned about the latter - the parents of young men with autism.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Lorraine Spencer has been watching the news from Ferguson, Missouri and worrying about her son. Jermaine is 16-years-old and biracial with a dark complexion. He also has autism and is approaching 18.
LORRAINE SPENCER: It's my worst nightmare. It's been my nightmare since he was diagnosed. I have the issue with him not understanding possibly a command to put your hands up, or to get on the ground, you know. So yes, it is scary.
HERSHER: Michelle Smith is also worried. Her 28-year-old son has severe autism and often struggles with both comprehension and speaking. She's worried what happened to Michael Brown could happen to her son.
MICHELLE SMITH: Because you ask questions later and you shoot first. It's happened too many times all over this nation.
HERSHER: Her son, Chris Akubuilo, is over 6 feet tall and from afar, he can look imposing. But get a little closer and he'll greet you with an outstretched hand and a big smile.
CHRIS AKUBUILO: Hi, Becca. Hi, how are you?
HERSHER: I'm good. How are you?
HERSHER: Today, these families have gathered with about 60 other people for a free seminar in Culver City, California, where people with autism can meet police and learn how to interact safely with law enforcement. Everyone's a video called "Be Safe."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BE SAFE")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It is extremely important that you never run from the police. If you run, the police have to chase you. That is a situation you want to avoid.
HERSHER: The goal is to make cops less threatening and more approachable. Lieutenant Jason Simms explains his partner's uniform and duty belt to the group.
LIEUTENANT JASON SIMMS: And what should we never do to a police officer's gun?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Touch it?
SIMMS: Never, ever, ever touch the police officers gun, OK?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Can I see the taser?
SIMMS: Yeah, how about the taser? Is that interesting?
HERSHER: Police Departments hope seminars like this one will build understanding between cops and people with autism, which is important because people with autism spectrum disorders are seven times more likely to interact with police over their lifetimes according to the advocacy group Autism Unites.
Up the street, the much larger Los Angeles Police Department has already adopted a similar program. Officers there learn that because a person isn't making eye contact, doesn't necessarily mean they're a threat - they might have autism. Some cops also get to spend an entire day with autistic teens. Luanne Pannell is the director of police training for the LAPD, and says police responded better on the street when they've gotten to know people with autism.
LUANNE PANNELL: Often it's because people misunderstand their behavior or their reactions are so strong in a public setting - in a mall, or at a park, at the movies - that people don't know what to do. And so they might ask for a law enforcement intervention.
HERSHER: Back at the seminar, students and officers have paired off for some role-playing. Sixteen-year-old Aidan Bithell is here with his parents. He and Officer Toby Raya are acting out a scenario in which Aidan is lost and needs help.
AIDAN BITHELL: Officer, I couldn't find my mom.
TOBY RAYA: Do you know your mom's phone number?
RAYA: OK, well, let's try and call her on my phone.
HERSHER: Aidan says he's interacted with police before and he sometimes gets nervous, but not today.
RAYA: Aidan, was it scarier or less scary when you talked to the police?
BITHELL: Less. I feel less shy.
RAYA: Yeah, less shy. Good.
HERSHER: Programs like this one have drawn national attention. Last month, the Justice Department announced it's working on a full training curriculum to educate local police officers about cognitive disorders. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.