My son’s ADHD means that he doesn’t navigate the world in the same way as neurotypicals.

I am the parent of a young adult with the ‘hidden disability’ of ADHD. While my son looks physically normal, his executive functioning is impaired, he struggles with emotional regulation, and his impulsivity attracts him to the kind of reckless behavior that most parents dread. His ADHD means that he doesn’t navigate the world in the same way as neurotypicals.

We have had more dealings with the police than I care to remember.

Additude Magazine pointed out recently that ‘people with the condition process information more slowly, and there is more “noise” during their processing.’ That means that while there are many aspects of my son’s “difference” that are wonderful – his musicality, his humor, and intuition – we have had more dealings with the police than I care to remember. He has lost his driver’s license several times for speeding – a tough stance by NSW Roads and Maritime Services here in Australia that I am grateful for – incurred numerous fines, and during his school years, it was suggested more than once that he might fare better somewhere else (!).

I have grave concerns for my son’s safety.

Understandably, with my acute awareness of the “school to prison pipeline” and the appalling statistics that up to 50% of the male prison population may have ADHD, I have grave concerns for my son’s safety on the frontline of care and the law. It is a problem that Australian author Kate Wild highlighted in her book, “Waiting For Elijah” – the true account of Elijah Holcombe, a young man suffering from depression who was shot dead by the police whilst in a delusional state as a result of a series of communication errors.

According to an article on the ABC recently, 50% of the people shot dead in NSW in Australia suffer from a mental illness, so it is not surprising that the families and carers of these people share Kate’s concern.

The spectrum for these disorders is vast.

People with ASD, ADHD, and other mental health conditions are for the main part stereotyped by the media. While it was easy to fall in love with the quirkiness of “Rainman” and the vulnerability of Pat Solitano in Silver Linings Playbook, we need to remember that the spectrum for these disorders is vast. When these people feel threatened, misunderstood or have compromised executive functioning and communication skills, their behavior can be easily misinterpreted by neurotypicals.

To corroborate this, I asked Terra Vance, an IO psychology consultant and author of “Apologetically Aspie,” (a blog at PsychCentral), to explain some general behavioral differences between the neurodivergent and neurotypicals that may provoke a fight or flight response to common stimuli such as violence, verbal assault, bright lights, loud noises and touch.

She qualified that, ‘Most autistic people have much more acute sensory awareness than neurotypicals. In distress, they may become mute and increase self-stimulatory behaviors or stimming, which may manifest itself as rocking or flapping their arms. Many describe having altered hearing, visual perception and mental clarity, similar to a night terror. Some may even blackout during a meltdown. These behaviors can be mistakenly interpreted as threatening or an indication that they are under the influence of drugs, which may lead to wrongful arrest, abuse or even tasering if their response is thought to be disrespectful.’

She goes on to add that, ‘Overstimulation can make sights and sounds so unbearable that it is worse than physical pain.’

So how can we improve communication with this group of people?

Funding is the short answer; to improve accommodation and shelter for those in need of help, as well as education and training to first responders. It would be wonderful to believe that education about discrimination starts at home and in the classroom, but sadly, that cannot be guaranteed.

As one primary school teacher, Verity Davis-Raiss, says, ‘Every year we find more and more children presenting with ASD and ADHD. We, as educators, obviously need more training in this area, especially as we are required to differentiate our programs to ensure that every child reaches their personal best. Every student deserves to feel happy and safe in his or her learning environment. Without support and guidance, how are we going to ensure we reach these goals in classes of 30 students or more?’

It is not only the neurodiverse kids that benefit from an inclusive education; neurotypical children are taught empathy by working alongside a child with special needs. However, it is important to remember that children can be cruel, hence, not to shine too bright a light on these kids’ disabilities. My son has never forgiven me for adding his name to the list of kids in need of special provisions for an exam, for which he was singled out in front of the entire school. This problem was highlighted in a recent study in the Journal of Psychiatry and Cognitive Behaviour, called “Just Being A Kid, Or An ADHD Kid?”

Training – At the end of Elijah’s story, Kate Wild mentions improvements to police training that have been affected since the rise of such deaths. With the increase in drug use and depression, it is often inexperienced police officers that find themselves on the front line of crime. Training teaches these officers to develop a rapport with “offenders,” rather than to use force. Simple changes such as these to their initial approach may mean the difference between life and death.

Reducing the stigma – this needs to be addressed in relation to the mentally ill. My son was nicknamed SPED at school, and as a parent advocating for him, I was continually subjected to eye rolls from educators and other parents about a condition that has been validated repeatedly by research and is included in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders.

Medical first responders are taught to treat patients who present with a physical illness with respect and empathy, and the same approach needs to be adopted for the mentally ill.

Breaking down the misconceptions

For a marginalized group that is often (mistakenly) judged for its lack of empathy, these people are at the mercy of our own limited resources of empathy, even though many of them embrace their own “difference.”  As Terra says, “These individuals have so much to offer society, but we have to break down misconceptions and stigmas.” Sadly, that can only be achieved by increasing awareness of ASD and ADHD in the same way as we have for conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash