It was a family celebration, a birthday at a favourite steakhouse in Subang Jaya. But Sept 11 turned into a nightmare for everyone when the birthday boy, 22-year-old Ahmad Ziqri Morshidi, who happens to be autistic, ended up in jail for allegedly touching a young woman’s chest.

Police say they were following SOP (standard operating procedure), but the case was far from ordinary. It involved someone with a disability, who was carrying an Orang Kurang Upaya (persons with disabilities) card, someone with “diminished mental capacity” according to his mother.

Datin Hasnah Abd Rahman told The Star that her son is akin to a 13-year-old who did not understand the consequences of his actions, or why he was being arrested. To help him cope with what was happening, she told him he was acting in his favourite police movie, Gerak Khas.

His family is hoping the police report will be retracted. It would be senseless for the case to go to court. What’s the point of locking someone up who does not fully comprehend his actions?

People with autism, a condition that begins at childhood and is lifelong, often have difficulty in social understanding and communication. They have exact routines and find it hard to be flexible in thought and behaviour, thus Datin Hasnah’s concern about Ziqri being apprehended.

On the extreme end of autism – and the spectrum is wide – some are unable to speak or interact. Others seem to understand but actually do not. Even those with mild autism, high-functioning or Asperger’s have a hard time with social contact and interaction.

People with autism may display odd patterns like “stimming” – self-stimulatory behaviour such as hand-flapping, rocking or spinning. They may repeat words and phrases, a condition known as echolalia.

Studies in the United States show that people with autism tend to have more run-ins with the law. Some common conditions, like social anxiety or the lack of eye contact, can make them look suspicious.

In July 2017, Connor Leibel, then 14 but with the intellectual ability of a six-year-old, was in a park in Arizona, flicking and staring at a piece of string. A police officer, thinking the teenager was on drugs, jumped on the boy. Leibel was left bruised and bleeding, with injuries that required surgery.

Cases like these have helped spur change. US police departments now offer some coaching to help officers recognise and handle people with autism, though instructions vary widely. According to Spectrum News, the New York Police Department gives all its 36,000 officers training in autism.

This includes strategies such as, “Be patient, speak calmly, don’t touch the person or stop their repetitive motions, unless it’s necessary for safety reasons.”

On Sept 19, the Malaysian government and police said they would review the SOP for criminal cases involving the disabled. This followed a petition launched on Sept 17 by Persatuan CHILD Sabah that called for changes, and was signed by over 11,000 people within 24 hours.

(By Sept 19, the petition had received more than 17,000 signatures.)

This is a great move forward, but awareness is crucial. Anne Subashini, who runs the Inclusive Outdoor Classroom which brings children with and without disabilities together, believes inclusion of the disabled into society through education or employment is important.

She says hiring people with disabilities will sensitise a workforce to the disabled. And in Ahmad Ziqri’s case, a life skills programme could prepare him to cope better.

National Autism Society of Malaysia chairman, Feilina Muhammad Feisol, has called for a “different procedure” when authorities deal with persons with autism. She criticised how Ziqri had been treated like a “common criminal”, despite holding an OKU card.

There are urgent and pragmatic reasons for action. An estimated 300,000 Malaysians have autism, and the number is rising. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified one in 59 children as having an autism spectrum disorder. The reasons for this rise are not certain.

Locally, we have seen some progress. “More and more people are talking about it,” says Humairah Arshad, a therapist who works with special needs children. “With the right approach, some can catch up with their peers and be in a normal school.”

But children need to be diagnosed early. There’s an urgent need for more screening and assessment facilities. Attitudes need to change too, Humairah adds. And given Pakatan Harapan’s promise of an inclusive society, there has never been a better time to aim for that.

Click on the link to read all our reports on Ahmad Ziqri Morshidi.