The moment I opened the door of my car for him, Nishant started sprinting towards the front door of Costco. He seamlessly jumped up in the air, with enough height to make a slam dunk, before triumphantly clapping. His sheer exuberance was contagious. He turned back to me with curiosity. The implication was clear: “Hello! It’s Costco — the land of glorious samples. Why aren’t you coming inside with me?”
The door he had just bounded out of was still open, and I was standing next to it with my arms crossed. Catching his eye, I tapped my foot, and gestured for him to come back, “We do not run.” He pouted at me and begrudgingly came back.
“What do you have to do?” I implored.
“Nishant has to walk. Hold my hand,” he responded, rushing through his words, clearly annoyed I was keeping him from the samples.
I shut the door, and we walked inside the store hand in hand. A moment after we stepped through the threshold, he took off running again. It didn’t matter that people were milling about with shopping carts. With its expansive warehouse milieu, Costco is the perfect store for running like a cheetah and jumping like a kangaroo. So, I called out to him and made him come back and walk through the section he had just run. Slowly.
One of the women who worked there, who had surely seen him do this a million times before, smiled and told me, “It’s OK. None of us mind when he does that.”
“I know. But, it’s still not polite. He might crash into someone and hurt them. Besides, he knows better. If he keeps running, we’ll have to go home.”
“No. Nishant will not run! Behave nice. Eat the samples!” Nishant immediately interlaced his fingers with mine, his eyes wide and earnest, unwilling to do anything to jeopardize his Costco experience.
“OK, show me nice walking.”
As we walked through the store, station to station, my brother made sure to say “Thank you — you’re welcome!” to each server. Once we were done, a gallon of milk and receipt in hand, I reminded him to walk while in the parking lot.
“If you walk, we can listen to music in the car. If you run, we will listen to news.” The look of complete exasperation on his face said it all — listening to the news would be grueling.
Nishant is nearly a foot taller than I am and five years younger. He’s autistic, and cognitively, he’s at about the level of a 4-year-old. Although he’s verbal, his language is limited and he only repeats phrases he has been taught. Most everyday things are a struggle for him, like reading, brushing his teeth and taking medicine. At 20 years old, he has a tenuous understanding of how to navigate the world around him.
To feel control in his life, he often engages in self-regulating behaviors that provide sensory stimulation, such as rocking back and forth like he’s taking a bow, biting his hands and fingers until they are bleeding and calloused, and running and jumping. To him, that’s a way of making sense of a world he doesn’t fully understand. But, on a Sunday morning in a Costco parking lot swarming with cars and families, it’s a safety hazard.
People often point out my brother listens more to me than to my parents because I tend to be stricter. I don’t know if that’s true. In my opinion, the person who is best able to keep my brother focused and on-task is Chantel. She’s worked with Nishant for four years and is now a part of our family. Even though she’s just a few years older than I am, she’s almost Zen-like in the way she cares for Nishant. Full disclosure: My brother is not an easy kid to work with. He’s slick, speedy and stubborn. More than one person has quit within the first week of being his caretaker because it’s too difficult. But not Chantel. She’s unflappable. Stress never really seems to affect her.
And Nishant adores her. Every morning he asks my mom if “today is a day with Ms. Chantel.” She teaches him all sorts of things: vacuuming, counting coins, reading, playing the piano and how to make small talk. The two of them go to the park, play basketball, and laugh together. Not only does she teach my brother invaluable skills to help him in everyday life, Chantel offers him the gift of companionship. She is his friend.
With Chantel, Nishant rarely runs in public. Not so with me. In spite of my warnings that morning at Costco, Nishant still ran to the car. I was parked in a handicapped spot, a precaution we take because of his tendency to run in parking lots. But even though my car was close to Costco’s entrance, Nishant’s abrupt sprint forced someone to hit the brakes so hard that the tires squealed accompanied by an angry honk. The driver glared. Nishant hadn’t even noticed the near-collision. He was completely unperturbed.
On the way home, in spite of Nishant’s protests, we listened to the news. The man on the radio spoke about the recent shooting in Miami in which Charles Kinsey, an unarmed behavioral therapist, lying prone on the road with his hands in the air, was shot while assisting an autistic man, Arnaldo Rios-Soto, who had wandered away from his group home. A concerned citizen had called the police reporting a suicidal man with a gun on the street. Mr. Rios-Soto was not suicidal, and he didn’t have a gun — he had a toy truck in his hand. Initial reports of the shooting made it seem as though it was another instance of an unarmed black man being shot by the police.
The Miami Authorities held a press conference the next day asserting the officer who pulled the trigger was neither “rogue” nor “abusive.” He had been aiming for Mr. Rios-Soto, and trying to save Mr. Kinsey’s life, and unfortunately, his shot went astray. Except Mr. Rios-Soto wasn’t a threat to anyone, least of all Mr. Kinsey.
One statement from Mr. John Rivera, Miami Dade Police Benevolent Association President, rattled me. He said, “Folks, this is not what the rest of the nation is going through.”
Isn’t it, Mr. Rivera?
The Miami authorities seem to think what happened to Mr. Kinsey shouldn’t be equated to the shootings of other unarmed black men throughout the nation. But why is attempting to shoot an unarmed autistic man somehow different? Why isn’t de-escalation the first step when responding to a call for help regarding someone who is reported as suicidal? Why isn’t de-escalation always the first step, regardless of the specific situation?
The officer who shot Mr. Kinsey, Jonathan Aleda, has since been put on administrative leave. Another officer, Commander Emile Hollant, has also been suspended for lying to investigators and saying he wasn’t present at the shooting, even though he’s the one who announced Mr. Rios-Soto had a gun via walkie-talkie to the officers on site.
The only saving grace from this incident is that Mr. Kinsey survived and will make a full recovery. Mr. Rios-Soto wasn’t physically harmed, but has been badly traumatized. His family reports he is refusing to change out of the clothes he wore that day, isn’t eating, and is experiencing night terrors. He doesn’t know how to cope. But, with time, therapy, and support of his loved ones, I hope he’ll heal.
The more I reflect on this story, I recall the handful of times I have called 911 because Nishant had run away from home. The first time I called 911, I was 8 or 9, my voice was shaky, and my words were garbled. Rather than explaining my brother had run away, I started repeatedly apologizing for bothering the woman on the line. The operator was kind and soothing. In our quiet suburban neighborhood, calling the authorities when these things happened seemed obvious. The police had the resources to locate a missing child. The police were there to keep us safe. As that 911 operator told me over a decade ago, “That’s what we’re here for. In case you need to call.”
My family has always believed the police are on our side, and we still do. All of our personal experiences with law enforcement and my brother’s wandering within the community have been positive, marked by respect and integrity. If something were to happen to him tomorrow, our first call would still be to the police.
About half of all autistic children engage in wandering behaviors, and of those who do, two-thirds are likely to have a close call with traffic. Of children with autism who have died in the U.S., 91 percent of those deaths were the result of drowning that occurred as a result of wandering. Wandering, as Mr. Rios-Soto did, is commonplace among autistic individuals. And many advocacy groups recommend parents go to their local police station with a picture of their child to inform them in advance this child has special needs and may engage in such dangerous behaviors. The idea is to give the police information in advance to better mobilize them in an emergency.
But, I’ve never seen an advocacy group provide suggestions for what to do if you find yourself in the situation Mr. Kinsey and Mr. Rios-Soto did. However, many do offer trainings for law enforcement officials to prepare them for interacting with autistic individuals they may encounter. In fact, the Miami police department has been praised for its crisis intervention training program designed to teach officers how to handle encounters with the developmentally disabled. But still, this somehow happened. In my opinion, Mr. Kinsey did everything right in a situation that went unfathomably wrong. Despite encountering officers yelling at him to get on the ground and put his hands up as he dealt with an agitated Mr. Rios-Soto, Mr. Kinsey managed to convince Mr. Rios-Soto to sit on the ground. Even when his own life was in danger, he did his best to care for and protect his client. He yelled at the top of his lungs that his client only had a toy, and that the police shouldn’t shoot. His actions are the textbook definition of heroic.
I know I would have done the same for my brother as Mr. Kinseys, as would have my parents. So would Chantel. But she shouldn’t have to. None of us should. And I shudder to think what would have happened if Officer Aleda had hit his target.
Young adults who find comfort in toy trucks or who glean immeasurable joy from the samples at Costco deserve to be treated better. So do their caregivers.
As Nishant would say, “Do not run. Behave nice. Hold my hand.”