BE SAFE The Movie – Interview with Emily Iland

Tom and Emily. image courtesy of @Emily Iland MA

Tom and Emily. image courtesy of @Emily Iland MA

Can you tell me a little about the early years with Tom [Emily’s son]? When was he diagnosed? What life was like?

“Tom was diagnosed with autism at the age of 13, pretty late. I had wasted a lot of time in denial, thinking everything unusual about him was due to the fact that he was a boy/only child/genius etc. When I finally saw we needed help and realized that autism was the best explanation for his differences, I was told that he was “too smart” to have it. Granted, this was prior to 1994 and before our current concept of the spectrum. Once Asperger’s appeared in the diagnostic manual in 1994, the diagnosis was made. In actual fact, Tom had a language regression, and his official diagnosis is autism.”

Emily then told us that she then began to learn all that she could about autism, so that her son would get the help and support that he needed. This was while she was caring for her two other younger children, Lisa and Danny.

Emily shared with us that Tom was bullied during his childhood years, from the age of ten.

“I realized that children were afraid of differences they did not understand. Why would they understand Tom, I did not at first and I was his mom?! I realized that a lack of understanding creates distance, suspicion or even rejection. To help my kid have a good life, I would need to educate others and help make the world a little less harsh.”

It was during these years that Emily developed the experiential program called Appreciating Diversity. This allows children to sense what it feels like to have a disability, such as deafness, blindness or learning differences.

Emily further explained:

“Helping kids develop empathy is a powerful antidote to bullying. I put this program on in Tom’s school. Later, I helped my high school district bring the Yes I Can Program for Social Inclusion to our district, to help students with and without disabilities get to know one another and make friends.”

March 27, 2014 BE SAFE Interactive Screening: photo courtesy of Emily Iland M A

BE SAFE March 27, 2014 BE SAFE Interactive Screening: mage courtesy of @Emily Iland MA

What was the spark that made you want to make this video?

“After learning what I needed to do to help Tom, I became active in the autism community and started working as a special education advocate. In the course of a decade I helped more than 300 families get the services and supports that their children needed.

I will never forget they day I got a call from one of my clients, a mother telling me that her 14-year-old son was arrested at school for a very serious crime. The boy [who we will call Zach] functioned more like a 9-year-old, but the police did not understand this when they arrived on campus to arrest him. Zach waived his rights (which he did not understand) and confessed to the crime on tape, with no adults present. (The police were actually following correct protocol and procedures). The parents did not know any of this was going on until Zach was at the police station, having been taken away from school in handcuffs.”

Emily told that this case highlighted just how dangerous the legal system can be for young people with ASD and similar disabilities to be. During the same week and at the same school, two further boys were arrested and this is when Emily knew that it was time to take action and to come together as a community, therefore involving the police, families, schools and the justice system.

Emily helped to form a community action committee to address the issue of autism and the police, called CLEAR (Community and Law Enforcement Aware Response). And she chaired the CLEAR committee for six years. She is also the lead autism trainer for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Her new police training project, Experience Autism™ allows officers to participate in simulation activities in order to help them understand what it feels like to have different features of autism. Emily has personally trained more than 3000 officers to date.

Emily also told us that The CLEAR committee also focused on giving information to individuals with autism on how to be safe, and of how to interact safely with police.

Did you write the script?

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