For better or for worse, Lydia Brown’s identity has been shaped in large part by her autism.
“Autism affects every aspect of my life,” she said. “I would completely not be me if I were not autistic.”
Drawing on her experiences, Brown (COL ’15) wrote and submitted two bills, one before the House of Representatives and one in the Senate in Massachusetts, proposing a mandatory training program about autism for law enforcement and correction officers in the state. The training would focus on how to recognize and communicate with autistic people in high-tension situations.
Brown began work on the bill, which was submitted to the state legislature last January, during the summer before her junior year of high school. The effort began as part of a community service project required by her school.
“I wanted to come up with a project that would use my interests and skills to serve the community,” she said.
Because of her interest in criminal justice and law enforcement, Brown decided to focus on the intersection between autistic people and the criminal justice system.
“I am very keenly aware that the majority of autism [advocacy] has to do with education, employment and housing issues, which are very important issues … but very little attention was focused toward what happens when autistic people encounter the criminal justice system,” she said. “Autistic people are much more likely to be the victim of a crime than someone without a disability.”
According to Brown, her bill seeks to protect both law enforcement officers and autistic people.
“Officers who don’t know anything about communication differences between different people are going to end up in really unfortunate situations,” she said.
Ideally, the training and education that that the bill advocates would highlight common speech and behavior characteristics of autistic people, crisis intervention, treatment in correctional facilities and methods of interviewing and arrest.
Law enforcement officers in Massachusetts as well as local and national autism organizations have vocalized their support for the bill, though others have raised concerns about how to finance the required training.
Currently, the bills are pending in their second session of the joint committee on public safety and homeland security.
Brown has also employed her personal experiences to advocate for autistic people’s rights, particularly as an intern for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, and speak out against arrests of autistic children for misbehavior in school.
“If an autistic person acts out at school, the student should be disciplined through the school [as opposed to through the criminal justice system],” she said.
Brown’s most recent project, the Autism Education Project hopes to provide resources for people with autism or other disabilities that feel abused by the criminal justice system. The initiative has gained support from the ASAN and aims to promote the type of training that is advocated in her bill in other states throughout the country.
Brown uses her blog, “Autistic Hoya,” to discuss issues facing the autistic community in order to assert the rights of austic people instead of ask for medicine or charity. Through the blog, she updates her readers on the bills’ progress and her endeavors at Georgetown.
In the upcoming weeks, she plans to send out an email reminding her audience to urge the legislative committee to push through the bill and write letters to garner the support of larger organizations for the bill.