When We Start Arresting 10-Year-Olds With Autism, There Is a Problem

kid being arrested in handcuffs
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A Florida mother is outraged after her autistic son was arrested at school and kept overnight in a juvenile detention center. His crime? Kicking his teacher. Now, John Benji Haygood is facing felony charges for battery on a school board authority. The boy's mother, Luanne Haygood, captured video of her 10-year-old son's arrest on her cell phone. In the clip, her son is seen handcuffed and being led away by the police. 

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Haygood can be heard telling the deputies that her son has autism and doesn't understand what's going on, but none of them respond. He wasn't released to his mother until 10 a.m. the following day, after appearing in court. 

The initial kicking incident happened in October 2016. John was suspended and has been receiving homebound instruction ever since. When he went to the school on Wednesday in order to take a standardized test, he was arrested in response to a teacher complaint. His mother concedes that he's had behavioral problems in the past, but says that he kicked the teacher because he didn't feel safe at school. She argues that teachers and law enforcement need to be better prepared to deal with kids with special needs. 

More from CafeMom: My Daughter With Autism Relies on Public Education & I'm Terrified for the Future 

As the mother of two autistic kids, one of whom is 9 years old and receiving substantial support at school, I find stories like these terrifying. My daughter is generally calm and gentle, but when she becomes overwhelmed, she can lose control. Her special education teachers have had to carry her out of public spaces and confine her to empty classrooms when she melts down, and she's even had to spend time in an "isolation room" a handful of times. She's knocked over tables and chairs, and it's not outside the realm of possibility that she might lash out physically during one of these episodes.

My daughter's teachers understand her challenges, and they sit outside the door where she can see them and wait for her to calm down. They reassure her when the moment passes, and if she can't calm down at school they let me know so I can bring her home. It's terrifying to think that if any of her teachers ever lose patience with her, she could be arrested for behavior she can't control. 

The system routinely fails autistic kids. With Betsy DeVos leading the Department of Education, it's likely the existing supports will be cut, and kids like mine and Haywood's will have even fewer resources to support them at school. But these are societal failings, not our kids' failings, and teachers and law enforcement need to be trained to understand the difference.

More from CafeMom: My Autistic Daughter Doesn't Need Your 'Awareness'

Kids like my daughter aren't in control in those moments; they don't make a conscious decision to kick a table or a teacher. Their metaphorical bucket of tolerance overflows, and they react with a primal fear that reminds me of a caged animal -- not a criminal.

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