man wearing black officer uniform
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The Talk: Why I’m scared to visit America

7 mins read

Despite being white and affluent, I fear the police.

I am autistic, and there are things inherent about me that arouse the suspicion of others. I recently read Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, and it helped me coalesce a clump of background anxiety into this coherent fear. I’ve never felt like the police were there to protect me, but it’s only recently that I’ve really come to understand the underlying unease.

Although there has been a lot of debate, especially among academics, about the quality of the research that Gladwell does (he is particularly notorious for taking old, obscure, poor quality studies and drawing grandiose conclusions from them), there’s no denying that he’s a compelling author. If you use his works as more of a jumping off point for your own thoughts and investigations than as gospel truth, I really think it’s worth reading his books.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of developmental disorders characterised by social difficulties and a bunch of other symptoms. These days “autism spectrum disorder” also encompasses Asperger’s Syndrome rather than having two presentations of the same condition as two different diagnoses.

It’s a lot more diverse than the media would have you believe.

We’re not all (or much at all) like Rain Man, and even though it’s a common autistic trait to commit fully to anything we do and be chronically incapable of half-arsing anything, we are amongst the least employable people in the UK even within the subcategory of disabled people. Around 80% of the general population are employed, about 50% of disabled people are, and only around 22% of autistic people are, a truly shocking gulf. 

Greta Thunberg, climate activist, is one of the most prominent autistic people in the public eye today. Image credit: Sky

In terms of symptoms, there are a few which don’t affect my day-to-day but instead influence how people perceive me. Atypical eye contact is a highly prevalent, and externally visible symptom of ASD, as is having a generally lower level of external emotional displays (also known as a flat affect).

Flat affect is perhaps less well known than atypical eye contact but no less a cause of consternation for allistic (non-autistic) people. Both of these symptoms are prevalent enough to be listed in the DSM-5 criteria for autism, though if you look into the research there are a lot of questions about their nature. Whatever the research says, the consensus seems to be that there is something untrustworthy about autistic people’s faces.

In Talking to Strangers, Gladwell made quite a few points that really rung true to me, despite the fact that the societal inequality he was focused on was race. Particularly, the repeated references within the book of how much police officers rely on non-verbal cues such as eye contact and body language to evaluate situations.

I investigated further and was not reassured.

In one study,  over 70% of a cohort of police officers and psychologists (who traditionally need to evaluate whether someone is lying and, crucially, believe themselves to be capable of doing so) cited avoidance of eye contact as the most common symptom of lying.

In fact, there is plenty of research which shows that eye contact is not related to lying at all. One study has shown that in offenders, eye contact is one of the primary strategies when lying – but a mix between avoiding it and deliberately making eye contact. A different study analysed authentic clips of suspects in police interviews and found that both liars and those telling the truth maintained eye contact at similar levels. Police officers are no less likely to know if you are lying than anyone else, but the scary part is that they think they do.

As a white person, I’m not drawing parallels between myself, or white folk generally and the struggles endured by Black people, particularly in the highly charged locations of American inner-cities. However as someone demonstrably “other” than the default, I can relate to the sense of fear, the sense that nothing you do is the “right” thing in people’s eyes.

Studies have also shown that police officers are liable to make credibility judgements based on a witness’s emotional state rather than the content of their statement. They are no better at ignoring emotion and focusing on the facts than non-police are. “Do not commit crimes” is not enough to get the police on your side in this world. With my generally matter-of-fact, unemotional reactions to things (especially things that happen to me) I would simply not make a credible witness in the eyes of many.

Although this doesn’t leave me feeling relaxed about an encounter with the police in the UK, I am highly unlikely to wind up dead here. In 2019 the police in America murdered 1098 people; in England & Wales there were 3 police shootings. I don’t like my chances across the pond.

Like many people, I value travelling. Seeing and experiencing the world, immersing myself in the culture, the very life of other places. Trying foods made by people who live and breathe them. However, the prospect of going to America scares me.

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Student journalist & freelance writer

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