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B.C. mom calls for de-escalation training after autistic son handcuffed in hospital

Click to play video: 'B.C. mom calls for de-escalation training after son handcuffed in hospital'
B.C. mom calls for de-escalation training after son handcuffed in hospital
A Vancouver mother wants answers after her 12 year-old autistic son was handcuffed on the floor of BC Children's Hospital -- by two transit police officers. She says the officers should have done a better job de-escalating the situation. Sarah MacDonald has the story, including the perspective from police – Jan 27, 2023

A B.C. mother is calling for better de-escalation training for law enforcement after her 12-year-old son, who has autism, was handcuffed at BC Children’s Hospital.

In an interview with Global News, Mia said she and her son, Anthony, were at the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain Station on Thursday when he became more upset over an earlier incident and tried to run off. Global News is not publishing Mia’s last name to protect her son’s identity.

According to Metro Vancouver Transit Police, officers responded to the station after a call from an attendant and arrived to find a child assaulting a woman, later identified as Mia and her son.

Officers eventually chose to handcuff Anthony and bring him to the children’s hospital under the Mental Health Act, police said.

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After escorting the family to the hospital, officers wound up handcuffing the boy again, this time with his face pressed against the ground. Mia tried to get the officers off him but couldn’t, so she started recording a video on her phone.

“I didn’t want to be that person to post a video about the police, because they helped me,” said Mia in an interview. “But just one sound of my kid whining and I turn around and he’s on the ground in handcuffs.”

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“I’m doing the best I can with my kid and his behaviour,” she went on. “I’ve only tried to show him positive ways of calming down, but I can only do so much. And he can only handle so much.”

The recording shows Anthony on the ground, being held down by two officers. Eventually the boy is uncuffed and taken into another room.

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Mia said she understands the situation at the SkyTrain station was a safety issue and that they were co-operating with transit officers — even riding to the hospital in separate cars — but her problem with the interaction was how her son was treated once they arrived at the hospital.

“We’ve been there maybe a handful of times, and my kid is used to a specific room, but we didn’t get that usual specific room. So he started whining,” she said.

“I was walking into the room first and he was behind me, whining and next thing you know, he’s on the floor.”

In a statement to Global News, transit police said the officers initially removed the handcuffs, but put them back on when Anthony “became combative” while being admitted for assessment.

“Once he had calmed down, the handcuffs were removed and the youth was admitted to hospital under the care of a physician,” the statement said.

“We have reached out to our partners at Canucks Autism Network who provide law enforcement training, for support and guidance to better deal with neurodivergent individuals who present an increased risk due to escalating violent behaviour, over and above the regular training we get from them as well as Pacific Autism Family Network.”

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Louise Witt, a director with the Autism Support Network and a parent of a child with autism, says interactions with police have the potential to be problematic.

“It does get frustrating for parents to have to explain over and over again about who their child is, the fact that they have autism, and [that] they may have issues around communication, socializing and behaviours,” said Witt.

“You get really exasperated trying to explain this to people, even professionals who you think would understand … There’s still a real lack of understanding.”

Police aren’t therapists, Witt acknowledged, but there’s training that can be done to help them identify the various different ways autism can present itself, how to interact with autistic people, as well as how to properly de-escalate.

“It should never get to the point like this little boy being placed face down on the floor in handcuffs,” she said. “There are better ways of dealing with this.”

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For her son, Mia said a de-escalation technique that often works is talking to him compassionately or sternly.

She said she usually holds him, looks at his face and asks him what he needs, and if he doesn’t respond, she has to be stern and tell him, ‘That’s enough, we’re not doing this right now,’ and that there will be consequences at home, such as no playing video games.

“To de-escalate that situation, they could have used their words first,” Mia said of the transit officers.

“They could have talked to my kid — he listens. He listens to me when I’m stern. And he listens to the officers when they’re stern.”

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Given the number of previous incidents that have happened in all parts of the country, law enforcement and other authorities who are regularly in contact with autistic people need more training, Witt said.

Mia added that they should lean more on families.

“(The officers) said they would take the lead from me. But that really didn’t happen. I would like to tell these guys you can be vocal before you become physical.”

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