Health

The danger of being different

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Fear and loathing of autism is bad enough, but violence is simply intolerable in a civilised society.

Scary overreaction: Attackers have justified their assaults on the mentally ill by describing them as ‘menacing’ or  ‘suspicious’, a sign of overwhelming public ignorance. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

I can vividly remember the moment I realised that people were frightened of my brother. I was 18, and my boss at the time was telling me about how, a few days earlier, he had taken his little girl down to the local playground. My brother, who loves slides and is severely autistic, had been there. "I was frightened that he would hurt my little girl," he told me.

I'm still not sure why he told me this, but it made me want to hit him. Perhaps he was admitting his own weaknesses, but to me it felt like an attack. 

It made my heart hurt that my gentle, smiling, beautiful brother should inspire fear like that. It made me angry that this man felt his ignorance was worth sharing.

I imagine the fury and hurt I felt then is something akin to how the parents of Faruk Ali are feeling, only more so, days after their autistic son was allegedly beaten in the street, in southeast England, by two police officers as he was outside his house, in slippers, helping the binmen to collect rubbish. 

Collecting rubbish probably made him happy. Many autistic people enjoy organising and systematising, and for his simple enjoyment of this task to be disrupted in such a seemingly violent way simply because he looked "suspicious" must have been incredibly traumatic.

Similar, perhaps, to the reaction of autistic teenager Josh, who was shackled by British police in 2008 for refusing to leave a swimming pool.

"As a parent, that tears you apart"
"My son doesn't cry," Josh's father said last year, when the court of appeal (the second most senior court in the English legal system) found that his experience amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. "But when they brought him home, he ran upstairs and crouched in a corner, sobbing uncontrollably. He wouldn't sleep for nights. As a parent, that tears you apart." 

It tore me apart just to read it. My brother loves swimming too, and like Josh, he sometimes gets "stuck" in places and has trouble leaving. It worries me that one day it might happen to him. It is not a concern that anyone should have in a modern, civilised society.

Disabled people and their relatives will be acutely aware of the fear and ignorance that the general public can be capable of. 

That this can sometimes turn into violence, that the simple act of a human being acting "oddly" or "weirdly" can shift the tone of an encounter from a simple meeting in a public place to one charged with aggression, is a terrifying prospect.

This nightmare came true for the mother of Andrew Young, a man with Asperger's syndrome who was killed by a single punch after pointing out that cycling on the pavement, in Bournemouth in southwest England, was dangerous.

Some people with Asperger's believe that it is very important to follow rules, but telling someone so can hardly be construed as "menacing", as his killer alleged. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, a pathetic sentence for a pathetic person.

Handsome but vulnerable
It sounds glib, but I have always been grateful that my brother is, objectively, very handsome. It means that people are kinder. A carer of his told us that often, when they are out and about, teenage girls would check him out, only for him to start flapping his hands or hooting or bounding down the pavement.

It made me laugh to hear it, but it also makes him vulnerable. And it's not just those with autism who are vulnerable, but people with mental illness, people who have mobility problems, people with conditions such as Tourette's and obsessive–compulsive disorder, basically anyone whose behaviour might not fit the majority definition of "normal".

In January, in North Carolina, a teenage boy who was having a schizophrenic episode was shot dead by police. In the same month, two California police officers were found not guilty of beating a schizophrenic homeless man to death as he cried for his father. Last year, in Maryland, a man with Down's syndrome was suffocated while being arrested after refusing to leave a cinema.

I could keep listing cases, but it would become a repetitive litany of desperate circumstances. 

The police need to train recruits who are sensitive and educated enough to deal with disabled people on a day-to-day basis. 

The police are supposed to be there for everyone, but as things stand, and in the light of the disability discrimination, institutional racism and the victim-blaming of sexually assaulted women, I'm wondering who they're really there for at all.

They don't seem to have been there for Faruk Ali and his family, and they definitely weren't there for Josh and his dad.

There was something else I felt that day. It was shame. Illogical and unwarranted shame. Shame that he, and by extension we, were different, and that that difference caused others discomfort. I never want to feel that way again, nor should anyone else. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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