A Fear-Based Society: What Would You Do?
Today, Sebastien, my almost 20-year-old autistic son, experienced being handcuffed and placed in the police car for the first time (the photo shows the lingering redness on his wrists). Not because he committed a crime, but because of fear and poor judgment.
This "sweet-bitter-sweet" day, when I took Sebastien out skating , did not start out that way. As part of the routine, Sebastien would pick up garbage along our walk to Bishan Park where does his laps. As this is what he likes to do and it helps to keep Singapore clean, he is equipped with a plastic bag and gloves. Near the starting point, he ran over to a truck and opened the car doors of the truck and then closed it. This is one of the several obsessions Sebastien engages in, which has been difficult for me to stop, without incurring an outburst and attack on me. Though I warn him that people could call the police, it has not had a great deterrent effect and it seems to have gotten worse this week.
However, the Indian labourers standing close by were nonchalant about it. As I was scolding Sebastien about it, an Indian foreman approached me and I told Sebastien, "See the man is angry. He is going to call the police." Instead, the man shook his head and smiled reassuringly toward me. He gestured with his forefinger near the side of his face to let me know that he is aware that Sebastien is intellectually handicapped. I waved and thanked him.
As I walked away, I burst into tears, moved by the simple and kind gesture that this foreign worker had extended to me. I have often been asked what can the general public do to help me. And this is one of these little actions of kindness that can move a beleaguered parent battling with all these issues with their autistic children to tears. This is because my experience with the Singaporean public has not always been so easy.
Two hours later, when Sebastien did not return from his third lap of skating after taking a suspiciously long first lap, I received a phone call from the police that Sebastien had been detained and even handcuffed. I was fortunate that my boyfriend was there (I had contacted him earlier after being concerned about this long first lap) and could go fetch him, as I was saddled with bags and was worried about Sebastien's state of being.
This is what happened. A Singaporean Chinese couple had contacted the police because Sebastien was going around opening cardoor handles at a carpark. When the police approached to talk to him, Sebastien moved away. They then decided to grab him, which caused Sebastien to react aggressively. That was when they handcuffed him and put him in a police car.
Given the fact that Sebastien had not committed any crime, the police's decision to grab him was completely out of line. In my exchange with them (on the phone), they told me that they could not tell that he had special needs until they saw the sign about his autism on the outside of his MRT card bag with my phone number on it. The amazing thing is that anyone (including Uber drivers) who has interacted with Sebastien can tell that he is intellectually handicapped in a matter of seconds. What is even more scary is that the policemen's poor judgment unnecessarily escalated a situation that could have caused Sebastien to explode in aggression out of fear and stress. While one can just dismiss this episode as a lesson learnt and my opportunity to educate the policemen (who turned out to be nice and apologetic) and work with them to avoid future incidents. I knew we got lucky that no one got hurt, but I shudder to know when our luck would run out...
On our way back, when Sebastien was once again picking up trash, I saw a pink bag with an envelope inside dangling off a tree bough near two foreign foremen (likely from China). We were were walking by yet another construction zone (yes, there is a lot of construction on Ang Mo Kio Ave 2). I was concerned that Sebastien would remove this pink bag (thinking it was garbage) and wanted to block Sebastien's view. At that moment, one of the foremen rushed towards me and handed the bag to me, while looking at Sebastien. It would seem that he knows of Sebastien and his garbage picking routine. He is probably part of the same crew who has seen Sebastien innocently opening their truck doors or dancing like a Maasai tribesman in front of the truck's side view mirror.
The food for thought I would like to leave with you is this:
When you witness this odd spectacle of a tall, gangly young man hopping up and down in front of a side view mirror of a truck, you have a choice.
You can either choose to observe and then understand, smile, and relax because it is more entertaining than threatening. This is what the foreign workers did.
Or you can react mindlessly in fear and call the police. This is what the Singaporean couple who reported Sebastien to the police when he touched car doors chose to do...
What would you do?
P.S. That night, hours after the incident, Sebastien released his stress and anxiety from the day by banging his head and jumping up and down.