Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, was pulled over by three white police officers last summer in response to a call about a man who was acting "suspicious" and "weird."
McClain, a massage therapist, tried explaining that he was "just different," and died after one of the cops put him in a chokehold.
After learning of his death, Sharisse Tracey, who has three Black sons, became even more terrified for her youngest son, who has autism.
Tracey worries how her 12-year-old, who's prone to running away and being forthcoming with his feelings, will respond if he's ever confronted by the police.
When I heard the final words of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died last August days days after being put in a chokehold by a white police officer, I heard my own 12-year-old Black son's voice.
"I'm just different," McClain told the three white Aurora, Colorado cops who pulled him over after getting a call about a "suspicious" individual wearing a ski mask who was "acting weird" and "waving his arms around."
Immediately I pictured my youngest child, who is full of energy and often walks, runs, jumps and skips outside for long periods of time while singing, humming, or talking. We are fortunate to have an acre of land where he can freely express himself without judgment or suspicion.
We control his environment as much as possible. But I worry what would happen if he were to display this "different" behavior elsewhere. It has been this way since he was diagnosed just before his third birthday with autism spectrum disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — distinct conditions that impact the way my son communicates and behaves.
At the time, his developmental pediatrician told me: "Any one of those diagnoses would be hard. But you have the trifecta in your son."
After being put in a chokehold, a medic injected McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine, a sedative, to calm him down. He suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. He was declared brain dead three days later and days after that, he was taken off life support. Had the officers been properly trained to appropriately approach someone who appeared agitated, McClain's life could've potentially been spared.
I was glad to hear that Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order last month instructing the state to reopen the case into the officers who were initially cleared. But it doesn't make me feel any less fearful for my son's life.
I worry about each of my black sons, but Elijah McClain made me realize I need to worry about my autistic child most
I have three Black sons. The death of any Black person at the hands of the police breaks me and makes me fear for my children. But there was something about McClain that made me realize I need to worry most about my youngest.
McClain identified as an introvert. He was admittedly different.
So is my pre-teen.
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As a baby, he didn't like being touched or held, and cried inconsolably for hours. He kicked and hit and I often got calls from his daycare center to pick him up.
To prevent tantrums, I attempted to control his triggers, from never running out of his favorite food to avoiding elevators and vending machines.
Having a child with autism means living in a constant fear because you're never quite sure what will set them off.
What will happen if he's approached by the cops?
How will he be treated when he's pulled over while listening to his favorite song on a high volume and doesn't have the opportunity to explain that the loud music soothes him?
The minute he gets nervous, he speaks fast and holds his head in frustration.
I remind him if he is ever confronted to remain calm, speak slowly and clearly. I encourage him to not make any sudden moves, and to never stop making eye contact.
But no matter how many times I tell him, I know he may try to flee to a place he considers safe.
Once, when we were still in the military, he left home and went to a store. He stole a video game, and was turned into the manager. She called me, because on a military post everyone knows each other.
We were given the chance to pay for the item. The manager spoke to my son about safety, saving his money, and how dangerous running away was.
If a store manager could recognize obvious signs of distress in a little boy, why can't our police officers?
God knows what might have happened to my son in that moment if we lived in a larger neighborhood.
Running away was a problem for several years. We tried window locks, door alarms and sleeping in shifts. But he sometimes managed to slip away.
After almost 10 years of intensive therapy, medication, and sheer determination, most people wouldn't know — on the surface — that he has autism. He's gotten better at self soothing. He'll often excuse himself to his room to cool off, or get some alone time.
I don't know how my son will react when he's upset
But he's not always able to control his anger.
When he gets agitated, he paces back and forth with his head down and talks to himself. With time, he'll lie down in the fetal position and take a nap.
Even when he's not upset, he engages in perseverance, where he states something over and over again for several days in a row. We have to intervene and remind him that he's repeated the same thing several times.
He's logical and smart, like many children with autism. "Racism is stupid," he often tells me. It is just that simple for him.
If he observes a police officer behaving recklessly, he may be inclined to ask obvious questions or inform the cop he is doing his job wrong. All things that could get him killed.
"I'm so mad so many Black people are getting murdered because they're Black," he says. "That's just dumb, mom."
Will my son get to live out his dream of owning a seafood restaurant one day? Will he graduate high school, college, own a home or get married?
He still attends his therapy sessions regularly and is enrolled in school for children with disabilities. He's become a caring, responsible, loving and considerate child. He loves spending time with me and making sure that I know how much he loves me.
If a sensitive man who played music to animals in shelters can't warrant some empathy and compassion from the police, what will happen to my son? Now add that he might not be able to clearly communicate under duress or understand what the officers are asking of him. You tell me my son's chances.
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