The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Caution ahead

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Photo by John Luke, Northwest Indiana Times

Lindsay Machak of the Northwest Indiana Times covered an incident whose psychological implications weren’t fully explored, but bound to stir up thoughts to readers. Julia Cox, who successfully campaigned to have a sign placed in her neighborhood alerting motorists of her autistic son who sporadically elopes, believes a vandal targeted her family because of her son. Underneath the sign (seen with Julia in the photo), someone painted the words “Retard F U.” Cox later painted over the words to avoid other children from seeing the language, and a graffiti team later returned the sign to its normal state.

However, local police aren’t so sure the vandalism was indeed a hate crime, with Lansing police saying the crime didn’t go far enough to be investigated as such, even though they note the distastefulness of the vandal’s word selection. Police are also reluctant to conduct a full investigation because there is no known offender and little information about who is possibly responsible. Cox is simply hoping the sign won’t be vandalized in this manner again.

From a criminal perspective, graffiti is commonplace but detection is not consistent. Usually, only paint is needed to make a graffiti hit on property. In neighborhoods such as Cox’s, vandals can avoid losing their cover by performing graffiti at a time when most of its residents are sleeping, as even a few public places aren’t equipped with surveillance systems to discourage such behavior. In terms of enforcement, police may allocate resources to combating more serious crimes that can more severely compromise the public’s safety, unless such graffiti instigates violent behavior. However, they are not completely immune to being reported should a passerby and/or night owl take notice, and those who are caught won’t escape without penalty.

Cox’s claim that the sign’s vandalism was the result of a hate crime is also not easy to process. Hate crimes themselves carry a legal definition, used to describe bias-motivated violence on the basis of personal characteristics. Traits include race, religion, appearance, nationality, language and disability. Incidents include offensive graffiti and/or damage to property on the basis of personal characteristics, which would contradict quotes given by the Lansing police officer in the story if simple definitions were applied. Based on what the Lansing police officer said, it’s possible he or his department have processed more grotesque hate crimes within his jurisdiction that went beyond graffiti on public property, or he could have been speaking generically.

Furthermore, without any clues to the culprit, investigating the incident as a hate crime is difficult to justify. Theoretically, Cox herself could have vandalized the sign to attract attention to herself, although committing such an act would be illogical considering the amount of time lobbying and receiving a sign to alert people about her son. If the perpetrator was indeed found, as was the case in a January incident in the Twin Cities reported by several news outlets (I linked WCCO’s version), finding ground to consider the incident a hate crime would be less difficult.

This also brings up the emotional investment of mothers regarding their children born with a “disadvantage.” Paternal instincts influence their thought process,  which can lead them to decisions or beliefs they wouldn’t otherwise possess. There’s no way to determine if Cox would still believe such an act would be a hate crime if autism didn’t affect her personally. This is not to say having children leads parents to making illogical, impulsive decisions, but their feelings may simply reflect a retaliatory mood should they believe their children are under attack. Thoughts of vengeance are nothing new, if recent media coverage of Casey Anthony’s trial provide sociological indications.

The story itself does more than simple police blotter because its nature doesn’t carry the repetition of “typical” crimes. Making specific signs warning of handicapped people has been somewhat controversial, as concerns, such as what Machak reports, creep into the public psyche. Other worries reflect potential consequences of publicly “transmitting” that at least one person in the neighborhood suffers a mental disability. Machak deduces that leading the story with the events that led to the sign would clarify why its vandalism was troublesome, as most readers would ponder over a “Caution: Handicapped Person” versus “Stop” or “Yield.”

Future story paths will be dependent on what happens to the sign. If graffiti continues, stories on public safety for the disabled may appear, which may lead to a closer mainstream examination of addressing the public about people who suffer from autism and other disorders. It could also re-open a dialogue on the struggle for acceptance in the face of other characteristics.

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  1. […] with some fearing that publicizing a student’s disability can lead to further intimidation, including the vandalizing of a road sign alerting motorists of a mentally handicapped person in an I…. Some have also taken offense to parodies of autism, including the character of Michael Falk, a […]


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