Edward Lofton loves road trips with his mom, Joanna. He’s like a human GPS: he doesn’t need maps or a phone, he knows exactly where to go.
“I have a gift for roads, freeways, for directions. I can tell you how to get to mostly anywhere in the country, to any downtown city.”
Edward works at Ford Motor Company. He wants to be a civil engineer someday, but for now, his navigation skills come in handy on the road trips. On their most recent trip, he and his mom traveled to North Carolina to see family. Edward gave instructions the whole way while Joanna drove.
Edward is 28. He was diagnosed with autism when he was two. He doesn’t have his driver’s license yet, but he hopes to get it soon. Joanna is confident that when he’s ready to take the test, he’ll pass with flying colors.
“He knows the answers! He’s been reading the manual since he was eight, so I’m not concerned about that,” Joanna says.
What she is concerned about is what might happen to him if he gets pulled over while driving. What if a police officer doesn’t understand that Edward might have a harder time making eye contact? Or processing and following directions quickly? What if the officer just thinks her son is noncompliant?
“When he was 12, I took him to the police station because of that very issue to say, this is my son. My son has autism. Yes, he is an African-American boy. And yes, he is big for his age. But please don't shoot my son,” Joanna says. “Literally, I went and did that, because it is a constant fear.”
There are changes coming in July that Joanna hopes could make her feel a little more at ease with Edward driving. Last year, with the help of the Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation in Lansing, the legisture passed bills that will put a designation on a Michigan driver’s license or state ID that indicates a communication impediment. Governor Whitmer signed those bills last June. There are amendments to that law in the legislature now that outline the medical professionals who could approve someone’s application for the designation. That list includes physicians, nurse practitioners, speech language pathologists, and physical therapists.
People with autism qualify for the designation, as well as people with hearing impairments. Jenna Giesey is the president of the Michigan Deaf Association. She says she’s had her own issues with law enforcement.
“I want law enforcement to know I'm deaf and I can speak very well. So that can be make-or-break in a traffic stop. You know, I have had instances where law enforcement accused me of faking my disability to get out of a ticket.”
Giesey says the officer apologized immediately in that situation, but she knows the interaction could have gone a lot differently.
“The deaf community, our number one problem with law enforcement is that we do not respond correctly to verbal commands because we don't understand them,” Giesey says. “If he [the officer] tells me to get out of the car and I think he told me to reach for my I.D., I just reached for my pocket without his permission. That's all it takes” for an interaction to go sideways.
Supporters of the law say a marker on a license is a good start. But they say police training is also needed to help avoid communication errors that could turn deadly. And they say that training has to happen more than once every couple years.
“Many of them don't know how to recognize an individual who is on the spectrum and therefore might think that their behavior is combative, or they don't understand that they take longer to process information,” says Joanna Lofton.
The Autism Alliance of Michigan has been doing training for Michigan State Police and some local police and fire departments. The training is intended to help officers recognize certain behaviors and adjust their communication. That could be as simple as not demanding eye contact, or allowing for more processing time after asking a question.
Hetal Patel is a speech language pathologist by training. She works with the Autism Alliance of Michigan, and helped create the officer training curriculum. Patel says the emphasis on communication is important, but they give officers other tools as well.
“As we have been working with many of these first responders, they've also started putting what we call sensory kits into their patrol cars or in the fire trucks or in EMS and the ambulances. And so we talk a lot about these sensory kits as well: what goes in them and how they can aid in those situations. And one thing is to have a communication board that has pictures that could support an individual that’s non-verbal in those crisis situations.”
Robert Stevenson is the president of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. He says he supports better training for officers. But departments also need the money to pay for it.
“Here’s the thing about training that not a lot of people realize. The training funds in Michigan have been reduced down to $122 per officer per year. And, you know, departments can't use those funds to backfill to pay overtime so they can bring people in.”
Stevenson says he also likes the idea of signaling to officers that a person has a communication disability, but he thinks it should be more obvious than a marker on a driver’s license. He suggests a marker on a license plate.
Edward Lofton is not a fan of that idea.
“I wouldn’t want everyone to know that I have a disability,” he says.
More than that, Edward shares his mom’s fear that police might see him as a threat, just because he’s Black. He wishes everyone, especially law enforcement, would show a little more kindness and patience towards people like himself.
“Think about George Floyd, you know, and all the other Black men and women that have gotten killed by police,” Edward says. “I guess the police would be more willing to shoot or kill someone like me than that to ask questions first.”
Edward really wants his license so he can do things like drive to the grocery store or to a restaurant. But he wants to feel safe while driving. He says giving law enforcement some information up front might prevent a confusing — or even deadly — situation.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said a bill to place communication impediment designations on state IDs was before the legislature. The bill passed last year, but amendments to it are before the legislature now. The designation will start being placed on drivers licenses by the Secretary of State's office in July 2021.