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family of Ryan Gainer, autistic teen killed by police, speak out

family of Ryan Gainer, autistic teen killed by police, speak out
When Ryan Gainer was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, he was nonverbal, and his family all learned sign language to communicate with him. But after the southern California boy learned how to speak at around age four, he was a “ball of energy” who never stopped talking, his older sister Rachel said.

He loved saying “hi” to neighbors and strangers alike, and as a young teen was known as the student who greeted everyone with a “good morning” and a smile.

Ryan’s family spoke of his early years and bright presence two weeks after his life was cut short at age 15, when sheriff deputies were called to his home and fatally shot him during a mental health episode. The tragedy has sparked outrage and escalated concerns about how US law enforcement uses force against people with disabilities.

“He was a funny, talented, goofy kid – just a beautiful soul. He saw the good in everyone,” Rachel, 34, said at her home in Apple Valley, a remote desert town two hours east of Los Angeles. “We want accountability.”

Ryan was killed on 9 March when officers responded to a 911 call from one of his family members, who reported he was breaking things in their house and “hitting” his sister, but that she wasn’t injured. Body-camera footage showed that two San Bernardino sheriff deputies shot Ryan within roughly five seconds of seeing him. The videos captured someone inside the home saying Ryan had a “stick”, then Ryan appearing in the doorway. He moved toward a deputy, who immediately threatened to shoot – and fired as he ran from Ryan.

The department said Ryan was holding a 5ft-long gardening tool with a “sharp” end and labeled the encounter an “attempted murder of peace officer” in a press release. Ryan appeared to be holding the tool over his head, but the footage didn’t clearly capture the moment of the shooting nor did it show him attacking or attempting to assault the officer.

At a press conference outside the family home on Thursday, standing near the spot in the front yard where Ryan was shot, the family’s attorneys announced they were filing a claim against San Bernardino county, the first step in a lawsuit. One lawyer held up a hula hoe similar to the one Ryan had held – a wooden stick with a metal end used for weeding. He encouraged reporters to touch it – noting the end was not, in fact, sharp as the department had alleged.

‘He overcame so much’

Ryan joined the Gainer family as a foster child in 2010, at the age of two, his two older sisters said in an interview. He had a lot of health challenges, including Crohn’s disease, seizures, an ear rupture and an early autism diagnosis. The family didn’t know a lot about autism at the time, but they did everything they could to educate themselves and support his development, and finalized his adoption in 2011.

“He was strong and always happy, no matter what he was going through,” said his father, Norman Gainer. Ryan was highly intelligent from a young age, excelling at multiplication in kindergarten and winning reading awards in middle school. He could easily memorize license plates and addresses and had an incredible sense of direction and knowledge of geography.

“When I was in college, he was helping me with my math,” said Rebecca Gainer, his 27-year-old sister. Rachel, who is a pilot and member of the National Guard, said she took Ryan flying and he could point out every freeway below them while she had to consult her maps.

As he got older, Ryan at times grappled with teasing and bullying, “but he stood up for himself”, said Rachel. “I was so proud of him.”

His father said Ryan wanted to switch from special education to general classes, where he “flourished” despite the challenges. “He just wanted to be treated the same as everyone else … All of these things, he overcame.”

Some days, he’d come home from school hungry and would explain that he skipped lunch to help another student with math or other work, Rachel added. He ran cross country and enjoyed racing his two sisters. He also aspired to be a mechanical engineer, recently teaching robotics to other youth as part of a local program.

The family all lived together at their home in Apple Valley, and Ryan would act as Rebecca’s “alarm clock”, she said, waking her up on time for work every day. “He was our missing piece,” she said, noting that the three siblings shared the same initials and called themselves “the RDGs”.

In September, their mother, Sharon, suffered a stroke and became partially paralyzed, which hit Ryan hard, his sisters said. “I saw him grow up, because he was really taking care of her,” Rachel said. Rebecca recalled him keeping time of their mothers’ seizures and helping her monitor her blood pressure. Ryan also suffered the losses of his close aunt and his cat around that time, and it became a “domino effect” that impacted his mental health, Rachel said, contributing to his episode earlier this month.

‘An avoidable tragedy’

The case has renewed scrutiny of how police treat people with autism and developmental disabilities, particularly Black Americans who are already disproportionately killed by officers.

In 2016, a Florida officer shot at a man with autism, who was sitting in the street with a toy truck, and injured his caregiver. In 2019, Colorado officers and paramedics restrained and killed Elijah McClain, who wasn’t accused of a crime and who said: “I’m an introvert … I’m just different.” That year, Pennsylvania police killed Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old autistic man whose parents had sought officers’ help. In 2021, Los Angeles deputies shot and paralyzed Isaias Cervantes, who had autism and was hard of hearing.

“It’s heartbreaking. We can’t catch a break,” said Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, the Texas-based founder of Advocacy Without Borders, a non-profit dedicated to disability justice. She’s autistic and has two autistic teenagers, and fears for their safety. She’s told her children not to call police and doesn’t let them drive in hopes of reducing potential officer interactions. . “I have ‘the talk’ constantly with them, and I hate it – I feel like it’s robbed them of the ability to just be a kid.”

When police encounter a Black child like Ryan in crisis, “They see danger, someone unruly, a thug,” said Giwa Onaiwu. “The adultification of Black children is very real. They’re seen as big, scary, out of control.”

San Bernardino sheriff Shannon Dicus faced swift criticisms last week when he said Ryan was “large of stature” and “physically fit”, and “juveniles can be dangerous”.

Audrey Christiansen, a Boston medical center pediatrician, who has studied police training on autism, said some officers are ill-equipped to respond to mental health crises: “The family calls for help … and police get there and they don’t know what to do. Officers say they feel overwhelmed.”

Autistic youth, even if they’re verbal, may struggle to communicate with officers in high-stress moments and may need physical space and time to respond, she said. In some cases, youth may be especially sensitive to physical touch. The presence of many officers or sounds of sirens could further escalate conflicts. Christiansen emphasized that each person’s circumstances and needs are unique and officers should work with providers and relatives.

Dicus said deputies had responded to Ryan’s home on five previous occasions and taken him to treatment without using force. He declined to say whether the deputies who shot him knew this.

Hadiya Kennedy, a former Los Angeles police department officer who has worked as a therapist for autistic children, said the deputies should have known about the prior incidents and approached the home with a plan based on that history. Kennedy, a board member of the Always for the People Foundation, a non-profit supporting families affected by police violence, called Ryan’s killing an “avoidable tragedy” in a statement: “The deputies involved failed this family.”

Dicus told reporters deputies followed “training protocols” and that he believed there wasn’t time to use stun guns, pepper spray or other tactics: “Officers are not required to be hit over the head with something … Lethal force is perfectly appropriate.” He declined an interview request.

At the Thursday news briefing, family lawyer DeWitt Lacy said the sheriff’s department had also treated the family as if they were “criminals” in the aftermath of the killing – grabbing and dragging his mother out of her wheelchair and then forcing her to come to the station, without informing her that her son had died. Ryan’s aunt told reporters that officers had threatened to arrest family members arriving to the scene.

His mother tried to speak at the press conference, but was too distraught to get words out. Before the news cameras had arrived, his sisters said they couldn’t comprehend Ryan not making it to his 16th birthday later this year. He had been eager to learn to drive so he could help his mother. “He said: ‘I’m going to drive her everywhere, wherever she wants to go,’” Rebecca said.

Friends remember ‘the sweetest soul’

Ryan’s Apple Valley high school classmates said he was well-known for his kindness and contagious smile.

“He would talk to everyone, asking how their day was, making sure they’re OK. He attracted people,” said Maddi Bauer, 17, who became friends with Ryan on her first day of junior year when she couldn’t find a seat on the bus: “All I remember was seeing this big, bright, welcoming, safe smile [when] Ryan offered me a spot right next to him. I took that spot not knowing the impact he would have on my life.”

The two became close – they’d film TikTok trends, tell jokes to others on the bus or play Nintendo. When she struggled to excel at a game he loved, “he insisted that I could do anything [and] always encouraged me”, she said. “He never judged me. Instead he taught me to not care what others would think.” He loved making memes and jamming to his favorite song, United States of Whatever, she said.

Maddi said Ryan sometimes talked about feeling sad, but that she couldn’t understand how he could ever be considered violent: “He was the person who uplifted people and made everyone’s face light up.” After she transferred out of Apple Valley high, they kept in touch. One of his final messages read: “I just want to make sure everything is okay and that you’re doing good.”

“Ryan had the sweetest soul. He made such a huge impact,” added Leila Hanoum, a 15-year-old Apple Valley student, who first met him in middle school. He’d make her laugh by sneaking up and scaring her. Leila said students were in shock, and her classes felt quiet as people struggled to talk about the tragedy. She regretted that she and Ryan had lost touch during the last month: “I wish I could’ve had more long conversations with him. We all miss Ryan.”

As videos of Ryan’s death have spread, his classmates and family have been sharing old footage from when he was alive, including of him as a young boy jumping on a bed and clapping, or him as a teenager doing TikTok challenges. In one recent video, Ryan smiled as he offered a message of positivity to viewers:

“Make sure you have a great day, be the spark, and make sure to spread kindness.”

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