When Autism Grows Up—and Encounters Cops Actress Holly Robinson Peete and SLP Pamela Wiley build understanding between police officers and young men with autism—especially those of color. Features
Features  |   August 01, 2017
When Autism Grows Up—and Encounters Cops
Author Notes
  • Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. bmurraylaw@asha
    Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. bmurraylaw@asha×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / Features
Features   |   August 01, 2017
When Autism Grows Up—and Encounters Cops
The ASHA Leader, August 2017, Vol. 22, 54-57. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.22082017.54
The ASHA Leader, August 2017, Vol. 22, 54-57. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.22082017.54
In a segment on the reality-TV show “For Peete’s Sake,” Holly Robinson Peete and her husband Rodney role-play a traffic stop with their 19-year-old son RJ, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Robinson Peete quizzes him on what he’d do if he got scared.
“Call my mommy,” says RJ.
“Nooooooo,” says Robinson Peete. “Because then you have to reach into your pocket and get your phone, and that would be a problem because …”
“They will shoot you?” asks RJ.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” responds Robinson Peete. “And it happens not just to black kids, but sometimes more often to black kids.”
Rodney Peete jumps in: “Unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with the color of your skin. You have to be extra careful. You do not reach into your pocket. You do not make any sudden movements. Everything you do has to be extra slow.”
“You just have to do everything they say, OK?” says Robinson Peete.
Processing all this, RJ looks slightly bewildered. “OK,” he says slowly, and ultimately answers correctly when his parents drill him on proper protocols like keeping his hands up and saying, “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” Later in the segment, Robinson Peete shares that she wishes these conversations weren’t necessary. But they are, especially for a young black man with ASD.
The statistics are real: Adjusting for population differences, black Americans are almost three times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers, according to a 2016 American Journal of Public Health study. And a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement have disabilities or mental health conditions, according to a 2016 report by the Ruderman Family Foundation.
One wrong move at a traffic stop by someone like RJ—and the situation could escalate. But the right type of preparation can help prevent such a tragedy.
“Kids with autism have to be especially careful in their interactions with police because social cues are difficult for them,” says Robinson Peete, who has long been an autism advocate through Autism Speaks and the HollyRod Foundation. “Then you add this whole narrative of black boys being a threat, and interactions with police often don’t end well. So it’s important to bring together these kids with police to increase understanding on both sides. We want to do this in honor of these kids, not in memory of them.”
This is the thinking that drove RJ’s speech-language pathologist Pamela Wiley to found Spectrum Shield, a program that trains young men with autism how to interact with police officers, while sensitizing police officers to the unique behavior patterns of ASD. Wiley has partnered with Robinson Peete—an actress known for her work on “21 Jump Street” and “Mike & Molly”—to promote Spectrum Shield in talks and on Robinson Peete’s reality show.
Another of their efforts to showcase the program is coming soon to a meeting near you: the ASHA Convention in November. Describing the program will be Robinson Peete, Wiley and Stan Campbell, a former police officer now focused on de-escalation. Gloria Weddington, professor emerita at San Jose State University, will moderate.

“It’s important to bring together these kids with police to increase understanding on both sides. We want to do this in honor of these kids, not in memory of them.”

Spectrum Shield’s origins
Robinson Peete’s police-autism activism began in July 2016, with the shooting of group home therapist Charles Kinsey in North Miami, Florida. Police shot Kinsey, who is African-American, in the leg as he tried to calm a 23-year-old white man with autism. His patient had wandered from the home and was sitting in the road playing with a toy truck, which police mistook for a gun.
Kinsey was shot despite noting the absence of weapons on scene and lying on his back with his hands up. Police claimed they’d shot him accidentally while aiming for his patient—who they noted wasn’t following their orders. Watching the TV coverage, Robinson Peete was deeply affected. She sat frozen, imagining a scene involving bullets, police lights—and her son RJ. “I knew I had to do something,” she says.
In her view, the violence could have been avoided, had Kinsey’s patient responded to police direction, and had the police better understood Kinsey’s patient and role. “If the officer had some awareness of autism, this would not have happened,” she says. “They should have helped Kinsey get that patient back to the group home, but instead they shot him, cuffed him and left him in the road to bleed.” Fortunately for Kinsey, he was ultimately taken to the hospital and survived.
For Robinson-Peete, the incident highlighted a need to build trust and understanding among law enforcement and people with autism. So she invited Kinsey and his lawyer, Hilton Napoleon II, to L.A. to participate on a panel with her, Wiley and officers from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The goal of the discussion was to seek solutions like bringing autism training to law enforcement—and vice versa. She also invited Kinsey onto the show to discuss the incident.
Inspired by the discussion, Wiley decided to act. In February, she launched Spectrum Shield, which brings together LAPD officers with Wiley’s older clients who have ASD. “I want law enforcement to see the humanity in our kids, especially in kids of color,” says Wiley, who is CEO and president of The Los Angeles Speech and Language Therapy Center. “But I also see this as a way for our kids to get to see cops as ‘not just out to kill me.’”

“I want law enforcement to see the humanity in our kids, especially in kids of color. But I also see this as a way for our kids to get to see cops as ‘not just out to kill me.’”

RJ’s journey
Wiley has been RJ’s SLP since he was 5. (RJ’s twin sister Ryan does not have autism, nor do his two younger brothers.) A desperate Robinson-Peete brought RJ to Wiley after hearing from doctors that his autism would leave him largely nonfunctional. He received the diagnosis at age 3. “One doctor we call ‘Dr. No’ had given her a long litany of all the things he wouldn’t ever do—talk, finish school, get a job, on and on,” says Wiley. “I said ‘not true, and we can help.’ And we’ve been connected ever since.”
Robinson-Peete was understandably grateful: “Dr. Wiley was one of the first people to say there’s real hope for him. And I’ve always called her our ‘angel on the path.’ The first time I met with her she said, ‘It’s going to be all right,’ and I cried for two hours. She has been instrumental in Team RJ, from age 5 to 19.”
Team RJ’s path has had its bumps, Robinson Peete admits. “He had no meaningful conversation at all until he was 8 or 9—it’s almost like he regressed into autism,” she says. But with a combination of individual speech and social skills treatment with Wiley, and carefully calibrated schooling (lots of mainstreaming but with plenty of onsite adult support), RJ can now hold a conversation on just about any topic. You may see some blips in diction, some dips in eye contact, but these aren’t overly noticeable.
RJ has also benefitted from the pre-vocational training Wiley’s center offers to people with ASD. “Kids with autism are growing up now, and we need to prepare them for what’s next,” says Robinson-Peete. The program teaches skills like shaking hands firmly, looking people in the eye, and learning and using others’ names. And the payoff for RJ is: a job!
As clubhouse attendant for the L.A. Dodgers, RJ launders their uniforms, organizes the clubhouse, and handles a host of errands and business. “We keep pinching ourselves that this is the same guy as before!” says Robinson Peete.
Staying alive
The flipside? Along with RJ’s new grown-up responsibilities have come new worries for Robinson-Peete. First up: RJ needed to get a driver’s license for his job. He was unable to pass the written version, but then with accommodations (an oral version), he passed easily. Robinson Peete was thrilled at his new achievement and independence.
Next up: Now that he was driving (and spurred by the Kinsey incident), she worried he would get pulled over, with potentially tragic results.
This all led to her involvement in Spectrum Shield, the project spearheaded by Wiley and co-run with Stan Campbell, a retired officer from the Oklahoma Police Department and founder of DOPE (De-escalating Officer Patrol Encounters). Held on the “Beyond the Label” ranch outside L.A., the intense weekend-long program brings LAPD officers together with 11 to 12 young adults with ASD for training on how to interact safely with law enforcement.
Through this program, officers see that there’s no one “look” or type of behavior with ASD, says Wiley. “They see that these kids may look like their typically developing peers on the surface, but they can have problems with processing and social cues that are easily misinterpreted,” Wiley explains. To help with this, Spectrum Shield urges participants to reveal their ASD to officers, even to carry “autism disclosure” cards that they show to officers. (Robinson Peete is pushing for the passage of “RJ’s Law,” which would note a person’s ASD diagnosis on their driver’s license in California.)
Meanwhile, the clients with ASD learn why officers need to follow strict pullover protocols—to protect themselves from extreme, unpredictable, life-threatening danger. They learn that police officers are sensitized to quick, covert hand movements that can indicate someone’s about to shoot them.
Through drills, simulated pat-downs and traffic stops, officers and program leaders teach the kids how to behave during a stop. The following steps, notes Wiley, are key:
  • Monitor your nonverbal communication. Law-enforcement officers are more attuned to what you do than what you say. Improper actions can get you in trouble. For instance, during one Spectrum Shield simulated stop, a young man laughed—which officers interpret as disrespect. It’s also important to keep your hands visible. Another trainee pulled at a string on his pants, prompting officers to point out, “That’s where bad guys keep guns.”

  • Follow instructions explicitly. Failure to do as officers order will be interpreted as noncompliance—to them, that’s an indicator you could be armed, and the situation could quickly spiral out of control.

  • Ask permission. Avoid making sudden movements that officers may misread. If you want to reach in your pocket or glove compartment for ID or a phone, first ask if it’s OK.

  • Be prepared for the sensory part. A traffic stop may involve pat-downs, in which officers touch your body to check for weapons. This is meant to ensure the safety of themselves and the community—not to upset you.

During the convention session on Spectrum Shield, Wiley, Robinson Peete, Campbell and their co-presenters will discuss how others can publicize these steps and perhaps start Spectrum Shield, or versions of it, in their own communities.
In Robinson Peete’s circle, at least, there is real evidence of its benefits: RJ was pulled over in May and followed all the steps—including concentrating on being respectful and keeping his hands where the officer could see them. He was let go with just a warning, and was so focused he even forgot to tell the officer he had autism.
Citing a celebratory tweet from Robinson Peete on Twitter, Campbell wrote on DOPE’s Facebook page, “He was able to calmly make it through, and remembered that by making the stop safe for the officer, it does the same for him.”
Check the convention Program Planner for the date, time and location of this session.
1 Comment
August 22, 2018
June Barry
Autism Awareness
Thank you! Work with an urban population. Your experiences give insight and support the need for advocacy for our young people through adulthood.
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August 2017
Volume 22, Issue 8