“The Night Clerk” Shows Us How the Police Fail Autistic People
I’ve been trying to dive more into the world of Autism Representation, mostly because all the autistic people that came before me say it’s mostly crap, and I want to get a sense of what flavors of crap have been partaken in before. Thus, I ventured to Netflix.
I didn’t feel up for a TV series, so Love on the Spectrum and Atypical were out. The first movie that was suggested when I typed in “autism” was The Son, an Argentinian film about a man coming to realize his wife is raising a demon baby.
When you type in “autism”.
Hey. Hey Netflix? Hey Netflix. Maybe, uh…maybe do something about that.
I got much better results when I typed in “autistic” instead, and that’s how I stumbled on The Night Clerk. A movie that came out this year, starring a bunch of people I’ve actually heard of, which appears to be about an autistic guy solving a murder? Sure, sounds great!
I had reservations going in, of course. I couldn’t find anything saying Tye Sheridan, who plays our autistic lead, was autistic himself, which I have to assume means he’s not, or at the very least doesn’t have a diagnosis, self or official.
The summary also describes him as “voyeuristic” which a) is an established negative stereotype (autistic people are creepy/scary/dangerous) and b) brings to mind a very different image than what he’s actually doing. He is absolutely watching people through hidden cameras without their consent, but he’s doing it as a way to practice socializing and come up with new scripts to do so, not for any kind of sexual gratification.
Doesn’t make it okay, but it’s not what most people would picture when they hear the term “voyeur”.
So yeah, had some hesitations, but went in with an open mind.
To be fair, they did get some stuff right, particularly Bart’s echolalia, which I think I’ll get into in a later piece. But overall, this movie’s kind of a mess, and not just in autism representation. The movie can’t seem to decide if it’s a police procedural, a thriller, a rom-com, or a character study, and thus, it falls flat in all four genres.
But we’re going to focus on one particular aspect — Detective Espada.
From the trailers, I really thought the relationship between him and Bart was going to be the focus of the film. Loose-cannon cop-on-the-edge meets unassuming autistic night clerk, and together the two solve a crime and learn a little something about life along the way. Hot Fuzz meets Curious Incident, kind of thing.
It starts out strongly enough, which is to say, badly. But that’s exactly what you want! It wouldn’t be an unlikely duo if they got along right away, would it? You want to show the audience how these two are different, so it’s all the more satisfying later when those differences become ways they balance each other out and make The Perfect Team. So in that sense, it was off to a great start.
But okay, let’s back up a bit. The crime in question: A woman named Karen books a room at the hotel where Bart works, right before he clocks out. At home, he watches her in her hotel room through his cameras, as he does with all the rooms he’s bugged. However, a mysterious person enters her room from the side door. The two get in a tussle, and a gun is pulled out. Bart panics, and races back to the hotel. By the time he gets there, though, it’s too late — Karen has been shot dead. Since he was the first to find the body, and has blood on his hands and shirt, AND his coworker mistakenly believes Bart never left work at all and tells the police as much, he is currently the Prime Suspect.
Enter Detective Espada.
To be fair, Espada gets a little thrown off what I assume is his normal process, since Bart skips straight to telling Espada his alibi without being asked. But after briefly empathizing with how “terrible” this all is, he just…jumps straight into his sex life.
Do you have a girlfriend?
Ever had a girlfriend?
Do you think about sex?
Like, what are you doing, dude?
Unfortunately, this isn’t a terribly shocking phenomenon for those on the spectrum. A lot of autistic people get questions probing into our sex lives, at least in part because the media portrays autistic people as a group as either completely asexual and/or aromantic (more on that in this shameless plug) or as having wildly deviant sex lives, with no middle ground. This can leave allistic people curious, and the overall dehumanization of autistic people can make it hard for them to realize how inappropriate asking about it unprompted can really be.
On top of that, if the questioning is coming from an authority who seems to have good intentions, like a police officer trying to solve a murder case, autistic people are far more likely to be exceedingly honest and open, for reasons we’ll get into later. At best, this could be embarrassing for the autistic person, who maybe didn’t want to share those details but felt obligated to. At worst, that information could be used by the officer, or anyone in authority, to take advantage of that person. No wonder, then, that autistic people are far more likely than their allistic peers to experience sexual assault.
From the perspective of a screenwriter, though? This is actually fine. Or at least, it could be, if it went anywhere (which it doesn’t).
Remember, at this point we’re only about 20 minutes in. Like I said before, this is our Unlikely Duo’s first meeting, it’s fine if it’s not a great first impression. It’s even fine that Espada’s crossing the line, since this could be setting up a character arc where he learns to Be Better.
Plus, Bart gets to comment, in a way, on how inappropriate this line of questioning is and what he’s aware it could lead to.
[…] in case you’re inquiring for your own personal reasons, you should know that I am not interested.
In any sexual activities that involve older men like you.
[seems like he’s about to argue, then concedes]
Got it, got it.
I actually love this moment? Like it would have been so easy to make this a “WHOA WHOA WHOA BUDDY” kind of Wacky Misunderstanding moment, making Bart the butt of the joke. But the moment is understated, and Espada seems to concede that yeah, that’s a fair assumption to make. Their relationship doesn’t get better from here — Espada calls out his flimsy alibi and the blood on his shirt and takes him downtown for questioning — but this was a moment where I could see some growth starting to happen.
My hope grew when, after a few moments from Bart’s point of view, we cut to a short moment where Espada is actually looking up Asperger’s syndrome (Bart’s stated diagnosis) on the internet. “Great!” I thought. “He’s acknowledging that he has some blind spots, and will be a better ally moving forward!”
Next time we see him, Espada’s found an SD card Bart forgot to grab from the crime scene. It shows Karen and the murderer, but only their feet, and has no sound, so it’s not going to help the case any. However, the SD card combined with confirming the fingerprints around the room are Bart’s is some solid proof that he’s the one who put cameras in there, at least. Karen’s husband, Nick, sees this footage, and the following exchange happens.
It’s that kid. It’s that kid, isn’t it?
Possibly. You know, he’s very savvy with this technological shit. You know, and these kids, these kids on the spectrum, you know, they could also be very violent.
When I tell you I had to pause, get up, and walk a lap around the room.
Alright, kid gloves are off, let’s do this.
Again, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that every character who interacts with an autistic character has to be perfect. Conflict is good. Confronting negative biases head on is good. Characters straight-up lying for the sake of drama is good.
But to have Espada say this, when the previous scene is supposed to show us he’s done his homework on autism?
Ridiculous at best and downright dangerous and irresponsible at worst.
The idea of the disabled and mentally ill in general and autistic people in specific being violent is hardly a new idea, but the “autistic people are violent” idea gained new popularity in the wake of the news that the Sandy Hook shooter was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 13. Before that fact was even confirmed, the Interagency Autism Coordination Committee (IACC), itself a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, released a statement which you can read for yourself right here. For our purposes, here’s the relevant paragraph:
There is no scientific evidence linking ASD with homicides or other violent crimes. In fact, studies of court records suggest that people with autism are less likely to engage in criminal behavior of any kind compared with the general population, and people with Asperger syndrome, specifically, are not convicted of crimes at higher rates than the general population (Ghaziuddin et al., 1991, Mouridsen et al., 2008, Mouridsen, 2012).
(Yeah, I can’t find a link for that third one anywhere on the internet, only a bunch of references to it in other papers. If anyone manages to find it, please leave it in the responses.)
But wait, there’s more! An article in the Journal of Neuroscience was released just last week with some interesting results. In VERY broad strokes, autistic and allistic folks alike were asked to make two moral choices — one where they were asked to support a good cause at their own monetary expense, or refuse; and one where they were asked to support a bad cause for their own monetary gain, or refuse. They were asked to make each choice once in public, and once in private.
When it came to the bad cause, allistic people tended to refuse the offer in public, but accept it in private, whereas autistic people tended to refuse both times. The conclusion the experimenters drew from this was…interesting (more on that here) but for our purposes, this is further proof that autistic people are not only less likely to commit actual crimes, but less likely to act purely out of self-interest in general.
Finally, much like many marginalized groups, autistic people are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. I had a hard time finding numbers on this from the US, but I found two sources from the UK. Click through for yourself, but some notable pull quotes:
“Analysis by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) [between 2013 and 2016] shows people whose disability impacts them “socially and behaviourally” were four times more likely to be victims than those who said their disability impacted their mobility, stamina, and vision, as well as those with mental health problems.”
-May Bulman, The Independent
“And our 2016 survey found that 73% of people with learning disabilities and/or autism had experienced a hate crime, 53% of which were within the preceding year. However, only 48% of people said they had reported it to the police, which means learning disability and autism hate crimes are grossly under reported.”
Not only are autistic people far more likely to experience hate crimes than their allistic counterparts, they’re also more likely to experience hate crimes than people with other disabilities, including mental illnesses!
So yeah, this line is bad. Unless it was immediately debunked, it would be bad no matter what. But it’s especially harmful when this is the first thing Espada says after he’s shown to have done his research. It can give the audience the impression that what he’s saying is a hard fact, encouraging people’s biases and putting actual lives in danger.
From there, Espada questions his coworker, who confirms that Bart was behind the cameras in Karen’s room. The next time we see Espada, he’s raiding Bart’s mom Ethel’s house, specifically his computer for evidence of more videos, or at the very least, a better video of what happened in Karen’s room that night. But they find that Bart has wiped his hard drive, and either didn’t back it up or won’t tell them where the backup is (most of this movie is from Bart’s point of view, but the audience is left in the dark on this detail, too).
When questioning him, Espada says this:
You get a lof of sympathy for being like this, don’t you, huh? Your little free pass. What happens when your mom’s not around? What happens when she’s not there to fix it for you? How bad does it get when you get that lonely, Bart? What happens when you get that frustrated, Bart? Does it just explode, Bart?
All right, that’s enough!
So first of all, someone who’s done research on Asperger’s would know that this is NOT how you question someone with that condition, even if you’re 100% sure they’re guilty. That kind of rapid-fire questioning can be overwhelming, causing the subject to become confused and overwhelmed. At best, this will lead to unclear answers. At worst, this could lead to a meltdown, which could be seen as further evidence of guilt.
One of many, many real world examples of this would be the case of Matthew Rushin, an autistic young man who was arrested and charged with attempted murder for a car accident, caused by him having either a meltdown or a seizure behind the wheel. When police arrived on the scene, they aggressively asked the visibly-dazed Matthew, “Were you trying to kill yourself?” to which he repeated, “kill yourself”. This clear case of echolalia was twisted into an admission of guilt. The police proceeded to lie to him, saying they had conclusive evidence of his guilt when they had nothing of the sort, in order to convince him to plead guilty to attempted murder (sources for all of this in the link above). Just a few days ago, Virginia Governer Ralph Northam has conditionally pardoned him, reducing his sentence to 2 to 6 years. This is better, but it still implies malicious intent, that a crime was committed.
If this is how we treat autistic people in distress, is it any wonder that 50% of people killed by the police are disabled?
Second of all, bringing up the fact that he might not be able to take care of himself when his mom’s no longer around is a cheap and cruel move. Unemployment among autistic young adults is incredibly high (link to the PDF download here, summary here). Autistic people are the most likely to live with their parents and least likely to live independently among people with other intellectual, learning, and/or developmental disorders (paper here, summary here). The reason he’s going to have a hard time functioning without his mother there isn’t because he’s a spoiled brat, it’s because he’s DISABLED, YOU GROUND SLOTH.
And finally, the free pass thing. God, the free pass thing. It’s sickeningly ironic that Espada is saying this to Bart of all people, who specifically says he has Asperger’s. Those who are considered “high-functioning” (gag) generally get anything but a free pass. We are often considered cold, calculating, always looking for excuses, even accused of faking our disability. This can be dangerous if, like in the case of Andrew Wolfheart Sanchez, you are looking for an escape from an abuser and are relying on strangers to believe your side of the story (HUGE content warning for physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting, and police violence in the linked piece).
That isn’t to say there isn’t some sort of privilege in being seen as “one of the good ones” or in being able to have some independence — there is. But that privilege can also be turned against you in a heartbeat. The minute you stop “functioning” in a way that benefits allistic people, suddenly your disability either never existed(“Just making excuses”) or it was always a huge problem (“I hate it when you get like this”). If the Get Out Of Jail Free card does exist, it comes with a hell of a lot of fine print, especially if you don’t look exactly like Bart.
So yeah. Bad monologue.
Espada never apologizes or learns from any of this, by the way. In the end, Bart leaves the complete tapes and murder weapon behind for the police to find, they make the proper arrests, and no one ever thanks Bart or apologizes for how they treated him. We just see him wandering a shopping mall greeting random passersby with a smile and some pretty lighting to tell us this is a good ending, and then it ends.
So To Sum Up
As I said before, this movie is a mess on many levels, not just where autism is concerned. But especially in the wake of growing public awareness of police violence, the things this movie gets wrong about autistic people and how the police should think of and interact with them — they matter.
One more thing, just in case it’s not clear. It’s true that autistic people are far more likely to have bad encounters with the police regardless of their race. Whiteness did not save 13-year-old Linden Cameron from being shot by those who were called to help him. But it’d be dishonest to say those most at risk are people that look like Bart.
Autistic POC are routinely harassed, harmed, neglected, and/or murdered by the police, even more so than allistic POC. We cannot only stand up for autistic children when they’re white, and we cannot only stand up for police violence towards POC when they are able-bodied and neurotypical.
There is no liberation for one of us without liberation for all of us.
For more background on all these cases, here’s a good place to start.
If you want more information like this on your timeline, I recommend starting by giving autistic activists of color like Riah Person, Kayla Smith, and Annie Elainey a follow (and some money, if you can).
And finally, the next time you hear someone spouting any of the misinformation I mentioned, say something. We can’t dismantle the biases in our criminal justice system without first dismantling them at our friends’ weekly Among Us game night.
Because I’d love to see the Detective Espada’s of the world left behind come 2021.