This past Thursday in Virginia, a 24 year old autistic man was tazered by James City County police after he was to “become unruly with employees at Wilsons Leather at the Prime Outlets-Williamsburg shopping mall,” according to the Daily Press. It was only after the man was placed under arrest and charged with trespassing and resisting arrest that police learned that he had Asperger’s Syndrome.
Needless to say, incidents like these make training about autism for police and other first responders more than essential. The Daily Press quotes a James City Police spokesman, Mike Spearsman, as saying that the 24-year-old man was “‘rather large’”—-these are words that strike home with me more and more.
Almost every day someone comments to me that Charlie is “so big” or says “he’s taller than you!”. The words are meant kindly but, in practical terms, Charlie’s height and size (he’s the biggest in his class but the youngest in age), combined with his limited speech and communication skills (especially to strangers, especially when he’s under duress), can make people who don’t know him uneasy, even when he’s simply sitting on the subway and does not respond quickly enough when someone asks him to move over. It’s been some time since Charlie got very, very upset in public; it helps that we work a lot on teaching him to manage his anxiety and how he responds to it.
In the past, when Charlie got very upset and aggressed—not out of wanting, I have to emphasize, to hurt anyone, but because that was the response of his body under extreme stress, a kind of “fight or flight” response—personnel at a previous school placement had been instructed to use physical restraints to stop the behavior. What usually happened was that Charlie struggled more (especially when a basket hold was used) and things escalated. And, Charlie started to make it clear that he did not want to go to school: There were many occurrences of those types of physical struggles, phone calls from nurses and principals, bruises and tears. (At one point, Charlie threw his shoes out of the car window as I drove him to school—-a pretty clear message.)
That was a few schools and households ago and Charlie’s had his best school year ever. His teachers and therapists are trained in crisis management procedures and it always seems that the tallest aide (a guy) is assigned to Charlie, but it’s very, very rare that any sort of physical force has to be applied. Careful and highly structured teaching and carefully training, highly motivated staff have made all the difference for Charlie.
So it troubles me all the more to read about how often physical violence and force are used to “treat” or “discipline” autistic and disabled individuals. One of the most egregious examples is the use of “aversive therapy”—electric skin shock transmitted by a device called the Graduated Electronic Decelerator. A school in Canton, Massachusetts, the Judge Rotenburg Center (JRC), uses this highly controversial “therapy.”
Some parents swear that it has made all the difference in their children’s lives and theirs. Derrick Jeffries, who has Asperger Syndrome, and University of Delaware professor Nancy Weiss have started an online petition to call on the American Psychological Association to condemn the JRC’s shock therapy and other “aversive” treatments. In December of 2007, more questionable practices at the JRC were noted in an article by the Boston Globe. Back in January, a key legislative committee in Massachusetts considered a bill to decrease the use of shock treatment. A state investigation into the JRC was called after an August 2007 incident, in which a former JRC student made a prank phone call to administer shocks to two students. The May 15th Boston Globe reports that State Police were ordered to seize documents from the offices of the JRC related to that prank phone call:
The collection of evidence has to do with a yearlong grand jury investigation led by the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley, said Kenneth Mollins, a New York lawyer who has filed several lawsuits against the school and who said he spoke to a representative of Coakley’s office about the Rotenberg investigation. Mollins said he was told the grand jury is also examining possible financial improprieties by the school.
JRC officials say that they have issued “numerous safeguards” to prevent the August prank call from happening again:
The incident was caught on 24-hour surveillance tapes, which were shown to investigators last summer. The tapes were subsequently destroyed by school officials, even though investigators had instructed them to preserve the tapes.
After hearing about the destruction of the tapes, Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Democrat from Milton who has sought to ban shock therapy at the school, said he intended to ask the attorney general’s office to look into the matter.
More analysis at Club 166.
Charlie was able to tell me that he wanted out of his former school by throwing his shoes out the car window. But would a JRC student do, if they had minimal or no language or communication skills do?