Youth with autism handcuffed – police weren’t wrong


It’s not easy to be a parent of a child with autism. It gets even harder when the child grows up into a teen, then a youth. It takes immense courage, strength, wisdom, forbearance, and infinite love. One mother’s account of what happened to her son with autism, who is now 20, demonstrated this.

Sebastien, the son of Facebook user, Kah Ying Choo, is 20 this year. He has autism. One of the obsessions he has is to open the doors of vehicles and close them. Kah Ying has been unable to stop her son from doing this. Whenever she tried, it would incur “an outburst and attack” on herself.

Sebastien frequently skated in a park. But something went wrong whilst he was doing so on Saturday. This was Kah Ying’s account:

Specifically, this was Kah Ying’s account of Sebastien’s brush with the police:

“A Singaporean couple had contacted the police because Sebastien was going around opening cardoor handles at a carpark. When the police approached him to talk things out, Sebastien moved away. They then decided to grab him, which caused Sebastien to react aggressively. That was when they handcuffed him and put him in a police car.”

Section 63, subsection (1) of the Criminal Procedure Code reads:

“Any police officer who has reasonable grounds to suspect that any offence may be committed may intervene for the purpose of preventing and must (emphasis mine), to the best of his ability, use all lawful means to prevent the commission of the offence”

Did the police officers in the incident involving Sebastien have reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence may be committed? If you saw someone trying to open a vehicle door, would that be enough for you to suspect that person might be trying to break into the vehicle and steal something? That’s probably what the couple thought, thus prompting them to call the police.

And once the police has been notified, they are duty bound to find out what’s going on and, if necessary and possible, prevent the commission of a crime.

Now imagine if the police received a call, went to the scene, decided not to act, and a crime was committed. What do you think would be the public backlash on the police force? They would be lynched by the court of public opinion! If you were the police officers, what would you have done? Would you have erred on the side of inaction, or would you have erred on the side of caution and took action?

The police officers in this case erred on the side of caution and took action. I don’t think their first course of action was to grab Sebastien. It is more likely that the police officers first approached Sebastien to talk to him and attempted to find out what he was up to. They only grabbed him because he moved away. And Sebastien probably turned aggressive, which was why the police officers handcuffed him – to prevent him from hurting anyone else or himself.

Did the police do anything wrong? No. I don’t think so. The police officers were performing their duty. Could they have done better? Could they have identified Sebastien as a person with autism by just looking at him? With sufficient training, perhaps they could. Should there be steps put in place so that police officers can handle such incidences better? Certainly.

And what about that couple who called the police? There are comments online criticising that couple for calling the police. Do they deserve the criticisms? On one hand, we have been told, rightfully, that we should be vigilant against crime, terrorism, and any suspicious actions and individuals. But now when a couple actually act based on their suspicion, we criticise them?

So what is it we want? When we see something suspicious, just turn a blind eye. Don’t kick up a fuss. Because if we are wrong we will be chastised by the general public? Or do we expect every Singaporean to be Professor Xavier, with the ability to read minds and therefore know whether someone doing something suspicious actually has malicious intent?

We aren’t Professor X! We can’t read minds!

We have a long way to go in finding the right balance between being vigilant and not getting paranoid. It’s not easy. And it gets even more complicated when it involves individuals who are intellectually challenged or diagnosed with autism. I agree, we have a long way more to go before we can find that balance. But criticising either parties won’t bring us to where we need to be. Each of these incidents is an opportunity for us to learn, to become more aware, to be better.

I hope more people will read about this incident, find out more about the story of Sebastien and his amazing mother, Kah Ying. As much as I don’t think that the police were wrong, I agree with Kah Ying that they could have done better. I also agree that more can be done so that Singaporeans better understand people with special needs (e.g. autism, intellectually challenged, mental health issues) and the challenges that their caregivers face.

As a start, I suggest learning more about Kah Ying’s journey with Sebastien.

Do support her and Sebastien in more concrete ways by going to Raw Art, an exhibition of Sebastien’s art works. It’s from 13 May 2016 to 5 June 2016 at the KC Arts Centre (20 Merbau Road).

[Featured image: from Kah Ying Choo’s Facebook page]

This article was first published over at Crazy Random Chatter on 10 May 2016. It is reproduced with permission.


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