In another episode of “World Gone Mad," a sixteen-year-old Ohio boy has been jailed for allegedly trying to sell sugar packets at school. Conceptualized as a practical joke, the teen took sugar packets from the cafeteria and transferred them to a soda straw wrapper, telling classmates it was a “secret sugar rush concoction." Punishment was swift and ludicrous. The St. Mary’s Memorial High School student was arrested on probation and taken to jail under the school’s zero tolerance policy stated in their handbook:
“In conjunction with the board policy, the St. Mary’s City Schools are a drug free zone and the Board of Education has zero tolerance for substance abuse or possession on school property. The school will cooperate fully with police investigation including but not limited to the use of canine patrol programs subject to the Board of Education policy.”
The boy’s parents were duly outraged, his father issuing this statement:
“He attempted to sell this as his secret sugar rush concoction. His maturity and emotional development is somewhere around the level of a 10 year old or 11. It was very obviously sugar, within a wrapper, candy wrapper. They knew they weren’t dealing with any drug. My son totally uprooted and slammed into jail over a sugar packet is completely unacceptable to me.”
According to the boy’s mother, this is the second time the school has had her son arrested over a “frivolous matter.” These kinds of so called “Zero Tolerance Policies” are responsible for a bevy of other absurd incidents, such as these:
* A fifth-grade class in California, in a gesture to support our troops fighting overseas, put toy soldiers on their graduation mortarboards. School officials forbade them from doing that unless the gun barrels were removed. Education officials pointed to a California weapons law.
* A kindergarten student in Rhode Island was suspended for bringing a plastic knife to school to cut cookies.
* A Utah boy was suspended for giving his cousin a cold pill prescribed to both students.
* At Kilmer Middle School in Virginia, every type of student touching was banned, including handshakes, high-fives, and pats on the back.
St. Mary’s Memorial High School declined comment. The Miami Valley Crime Lab is analyzing the offending sugar packet.
When will cooler heads prevail and the impulse to protect our children be tempered with common sense, especially when dealing with our special needs population? For any child to be subjected to such treatment is traumatic, but all-the-more so for one with autism. To ignore the extenuating circumstance of autism shows just how much work remains to be done within our public schools to bring officials into the twenty-first century.
Researchers at the University of Texas, led by Professor Mark O’Reilly, have declared that Sensory Integration Therapy (SIT) is scientifically ungrounded and should cease to be used by a majority of occupational therapists in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Since many agencies are mandated to use only scientifically-proven methods, they advocate that Applied Behavioral Therapy (ABA) should be the sole therapy employed.
Noteworthy is the fact that this university is among the few that offer certification in ABA. O’Reilly’s conclusions are supported by recent statements by the American Society of Pediatrics disparaging SIT as scientifically unproven. So say goodbye to weighted blankets, swings and bouncy balls and say hello to rote repetition of desired skills.
Now I realize that ABA is a viable therapy for autism and is proven to establish age-appropriate, desirable behavior but does it really need to supplant SIT?
Experts see danger in SIT because they deem it rewarding of undesirable behaviors. Act out and you get to go sit on a bouncy ball and not complete that loathsome math worksheet. And offering pleasant distractions from performing desired tasks messes up ABA therapy when used concurrently.
My hackles are now up. Full disclosure, my child never had ABA. His life may have unfolded much differently and better if he had. But he did have an overabundance of individuals who felt his spectacular meltdowns were gross manipulations in order to get out of doing something unpleasant. And what I reiterated until I was blue in the face was that my son wasn’t trying to get out of the work itself, rather the extreme
anxiety the work induced. There’s a term for this: Pathological Demand Avoidance, a condition in which the everyday demands of life induce unbearable stress.
My son was hospitalized twice for anxiety, during which time he would spend the entirety of his psych ward school time convulsing because he
couldn’t bear math worksheets. It broke my heart but the staff maintained that he would “flame out” and eventually perform the tasks, but the grand progress cited was a reduction of 5 minutes in fits by the end of his two weeks in lockdown.
The fact is that some children need to be soothed before they can be educated. A total of two teachers in my son’s eleven years of school appreciated this. His time in their classrooms were halcyon days of productivity. Yes, he sat on a couch instead of a desk, and from that couch he could actually focus and absorb what the teacher was saying. Yes, if he started to get anxious, he could go for a walk but he did so before he exploded and came back calm and ready to get back into the flow. These strategies weren’t coddling, they were accommodations that worked.
I sometimes despair at the chasm between those who scientifically study autism and those of us who are actually in the trenches. Techniques I learned from SIT were life lines. One of the blessings of my neighborhood is that we live close to a park with swings. Swinging was the fastest way to calm my son. And what would I do if I couldn’t lay his heavy blanket over him at home, bringing him instance peace? His public outbursts were cut by more than half after I purchased noise reducing headphones.
Now that he’s sixteen, the headphones are hooked into his iPod. Just last week, I took him to the dentist and cringed when I heard him shrieking inside. His doctor emerged to report that as soon as they put a weighted blanket on him, he was fine. Some things never change.
Maybe what you know can’t be scientifically proven, but the truth of it remains…
The latest big autism story is a new study by University of Connecticut psychology professor Deborah Fein that claims some children with autism can not only lose their diagnosis as they get older, but become indistinguishable from typical peers. Fein assessed 34 adults who had been given an autism diagnosis as children, many of whom had received behavioral interventions and were deemed to have “optimal outcomes.” As young adults, the study subjects were found to have “no current symptoms of the disorder” and to be “functioning on a par with their mainstream peers.”
This has led to an onslaught of headlines about children “outgrowing autism” and becoming "cured." While initially reticent to open this Pandora’s box, I have felt increasing compelled to put in my two cents worth on the controversy.
First of all, while this premise may never have been scientifically proven before, it is not fresh news. I remember listening to Dr. Tony Attwood roughly seven years ago as he described high functioning autism existing on a spectrum from severe dysfunction to becoming a personality trait. This is not a passive experience of merely “outgrowing” something as you would the myriad immature behaviors of childhood, but an active and sustained
effort over the course of years to resolve problematic issues inherent in having autism. Significant is the fact that the study subject had all engaged in intensive behavioral therapy which help them to adapt to the neurotypical world, or “play the game," as it were. While in no way disparaging behavioral therapy and successfully functioning in the larger world, this is not indicative of no longer having autism. A high functioning person with autism still carries the joys and burdens of it for life. They may shed a clinical diagnosis, but autism is still the prism through which they experience the world.
This leads us to another issue. Many consider autism a source of pride and would no longer shed it than they would an ethnic heritage or distinctive physical trait. This brings to mind a time when one of my high functioning twins was asked to write a two page essay on what it’s like to have a disorder. He wrote the single sentence, “It’s like having brown eyes." That phrase is enshrined in my heart and mind.
Like the subjects of the test, my son passes for "normal," is successful in school, beloved by his high school teachers. But the myriad social interactions and pressures he successfully fields each day leave him utterly exhausted in a way his neurotypical peers will never experience. While he has acquaintances in his classes, he true sense of belonging is derived from the Robotics Club, where he gathers with
other "nerds." He still gets a PE exemption from the agony of team sports and will never go to a school football game. Is he proud to have shed the identity of being autistic, that he passes for neurotypical? Yes and no. He doesn’t want to be defined by his autism, but he is very proud of the distinct gifts it bestows, his unique take on the world, his piercing intellect when it comes to his special interest.
He is at peace with himself.
I believe the take away from the Fein study is but a confirmation that within the course of a lifetime, all children with autism can and will grow and change within their personal, idiosyncratic spectrum of possibility. Studies like this can raise hopes of a “cure” and subsequently dash the hopes of parents whose kids don’t experience similar outcomes. Concomitant feelings of regret are a risk. “If-only” mantras could
afflict parents who didn’t give their children intensive behavior therapy as the “successful” test participants reported. For what it’s worth, my son never had behavior therapy and didn’t even have early intervention.
There is no rubric for autism parenthood, just unconditional love and devotion.
Seattle theater artist and playwright, Lauren Marshall, has developed an amazing class for both neurotypical and special needs children. Entitled “Theater of Possibility," Lauren synthesizes what she has learned as a mother of two daughters on the autism spectrum with Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) and “Theatre of the Oppressed," a movement that employs theater as an agent of social change.
RDI is a parent-based therapy that addresses core deficits of autism such as emotional referencing, social coordination, flexible thinking, declarative language, foresight/hindsight and relational information process (the ability to solve problems that have no right or wrong solution). Having realized the shortcomings of ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) in creating more than mimicked skills in her daughters, Lauren turned to RDI to fill in the “why” of performing social behaviors. For instance, her theater games require participants to utilize eye contact and read facial expressions in order to know what to do next, teaching non verbal communication in a playful, effective manner.
Lauren also infuses her curriculum with the principles of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian founder of “Theatre of the Oppressed” who maintained that “oppression is when one person is dominated by the monologue of another and has no chance to reply." He created the concept of using theater as a means of empowering audiences and performers alike. The heart of Boal’s work is the spect-actor, the audience members who are asked to join in problem solving the dilemma presented onstage. Major techniques of “Theatre of the Oppressed” that Lauren draws upon include:
Forum Theater – A problem solving technique in which an unresolved scene of oppression is presented. It is then replayed with the audience invited to stop the action, replace the character they feel is “lacking power”, and improvise solutions. This structure can be used to explore past and current situations, or as a rehearsal for a future event.
The Cop in the Head – Techniques that help individuals explore the internal voices, fears, oppressions that prevent him/her from living fully. Rather than focus on external oppressors (“cops”), these techniques bring to light the “cops” inside one’s head.
The Rainbow of Desire – A technique which deconstructs one person’s story of tension in a relationship – parent/child, employer/employee, lovers, friends, etc. Using Image Theater, we then identify and bring to life the various conflicting emotions — the fears and desires that are happening inside the characters. The process very quickly goes beyond the individual story into an exploration of the group experience
and the “rainbow” of who we are.
Lauren’s ability to bring together kids with diverse needs and have them work harmoniously is an outstanding part of her class. Neurotypical kids and those with various degrees of challenges strike a chord of true mutual understanding and appreciation.
My sixteen-year-old son has never fared well in the classroom setting and when I sent him off to the first meeting of Theater of Possibility, I fully expected a cell phone call telling me to come get him soon after I left. Instead, at the end of the class I heard “what a joy he is to work with!” I couldn’t believe my ears. When his class gave its final presentation, my other son balked at having to attend, but soon he was joining in onstage, having the time of his life. He signed on for the next session.
When our kids thrive at something they attempt, it’s a such a joy. Improvisation affords them the opportunity to learn social skills obliquely and act out their inner lives instead of acting out.
Of all the sad autism stories I have encountered, perhaps none has haunted me more than that of Ayn Van Dyk, the ten year old Canadian girl who was abducted from her school by Canada’s Child Protective Services. As this site has documented in the past, Ayn had been successfully found safe and sound after a wandering incident at her home, but authorities seized her and put her in state custody “to lighten the load” of her single father of
While in custody, she was heavily drugged on anti-psychotics as her frantic father Derek, fought tirelessly for her release.
So it was with great trepidation that I recently set out to learn what had become of her in the many months since I had followed the story. To my great and utter delight, the Freedom for Ayn blog has reported that the family’s horrible ordeal of more than five hundred days is now drawing to a close. Ayn is coming home very soon.
While details are scant, it appears that her father finally had his day in court.
In a time when we’re overdue for good news, this is indeed a candle in the darkness. Ayn won’t be the same little girl who wandered out of her yard so long ago and the damage to this family has been done, but at least now the recovery and healing can begin.
For more details on Ayn’s story, here’s a timeline of previous posts that shed more light on her and her family’s plight:
Yes, Ayn is coming home to her daddy and 2 siblings. Derek, however, did not receive his day in court… Actually, MCFD entered with a deal to avert a trial just days prior to a scheduled hearing. An agreement was reached in which the Ministry conceded, no finding of need to intervene existed! More than a year and a half has transpired since the nightmare began; an unacceptable delay of justice.
The story of Derek Hoare and his little girl, Ayn, is a tragic one; one that sadly, is afflicting many Canadian households: Children with disability, such as Autism, are being herded under the scope of Child Welfare Intervention despite absence of negligence or abuse.
SAMANTHA’S LAW in the neighbouring Province of Alberta could have averted this tragic demonstration of Ministry’s ignorance towards the disabled community in British Columbia. Caring families dealing with issues of medical and developmental diversity must be handled distinctly from the Child Welfare Intervention Model.
The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut shines a light on the need for exceptional care of autism spectrum students as they transition out of public schools and into adulthood. We see this phenomenon come into play as Adam Lanza is said to have spent two years living in isolation in his basement, largely playing violent video games in the run up to the shooting.
Having recently withdrawn my son from his high school, I can relate to Nancy Lanza leaving the school system and know firsthand what a toll it takes on both child and parent being isolated together in the wake of that. I keep my son monitored through counseling and engaged in a handful of activities we’ve found in which he enjoys success, but it’s still very hard for him to not be in school like other kids his age. At sixteen, his future is uncertain.
Schools are legally obligated to take care of our special needs children until they are twenty-one. So why would parents like me cut loose of the safety net of proffered transitional services?
The truth is, we have become fed up with our children’s school systems being unwilling/unable to meet their needs and assuming an adversarial
stance against us. Two camps who should be arriving at what is best for the child become locked in mortal combat. Faith is broken and as a result, we have cut our losses and retreated from the battlefield.
For myself, I suspected there was little to be lost in doing so. If transitional services are anything like other educational services we’ve endured, we would be better off without them. The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation was the named clearinghouse for my son’s future, but his unique profile of strengths and weaknesses did not match what they had to offer.
Fortunately, wonderful readers to my previous posts responded to my plight and gave me a lead: The Center for Change in Transition Services here in Seattle. Their website reports that transition services are a set of coordinated activities designed to be a results-oriented process that facilitates the successful movement from school to postsecondary living. These activities are based on a student’s needs, strengths, preferences and interests. Transition services include instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school living objectives and, when appropriate, daily living skills. I am eager to call them after Christmas.
I looked for a state-by-state guide to transitional services and found a “Resources Roadmap” at http://www.autismafter16.com. There’s also the ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network) which has education and employment among its many topics. Founded by Ari Ne’eman, President Obama’s 2009 appointee to the National Council on Disability, ASAN is on the cutting edge of viewing autism spectrum disorder as a major civil rights movement of our time. They partner closely with businesses to expand opportunites for individuals on the autism spectrum.
If anyone else has more links to share, please do so. It’s time to pool our knowledge and help each other through these difficult days.
It took me a long time to find an answer, and the answer is I couldn’t find a definitive one.
A hodgepodge of statistics gathered by various groups demonstrates that there is no national system of reporting serious and fatal incidents involving restraint and seclusion in our schools. States vary as to whether they even have rules and regulations governing interventions in the school setting. Many injuries and deaths go unreported. The best information we have comes from a report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2009 estimating that over 200 students have died as a result of school based seclusion and restraints between 1999 and 2009.
Then on May 27, 2009, The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) issued a report, “ Unsafe in the Schoolhouse: Abuse of Children with Disabilities,” which contained the horrifying statistic that 68% of the students who were subject to seclusion or restraints were diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. In other words, brute force is applied in lieu of best practices in dealing with our children’s autism.
Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document (US Dept of Ed, May 2012) puts forth a concerted effort to address these serious issues. The report makes clear that restraint and seclusion are intended only as a means of last resort, when the child is of imminent harm to himself or others. Aside from physical harm that can culminate in death, restraint and seclusion psychologically mar the child, and as a strategy provokes the behaviors it is intended to stop. Tragically, restraint or seclusion are often used as a routine means to address instructional problems or inappropriate behavior such as disrespect, noncompliance, insubordination, etc.,
as a means of coercion or retaliation, or simple convenience. Lack of training is cited as a huge element in harmful and deadly incidents. The report goes on to conclude that positive behavior supports must supplant restraint and seclusion. A comprehensive list of fifteen guidelines are laid out, but the document lacks muscle.
Unless and until there is national legislation, there will be no enforceable protections. Sen. Thomas “Tom” Harkin [D-IA] recently introduced S. 2020: Keeping All Students Safe Act, but lawmakers have indicated no plans to take up the issue. Indeed, govtrack.us gives us a dismal prognosis that it has a 34% chance of getting past committee and 6% chance of being enacted.
How many more children will be psychologically damaged, physically injured, or killed before lawmakers take up their cause??
Something has been tugging at my heart in the wake of the unfathomable tragedy in Newtown, CT. The obvious broken systems have been laid bare. Gun control issues must be wrestled away from special interests and mental health must be recognized as an urgent public health issue.
But there’s another broken system in America that has yet to be fully addressed in light of Friday’s incident: special
I venture to say that every parent of a special needs child knows of what I speak.
Certainly, here in Seattle, it is common knowledge that school districts fail to provide a free and appropriate education to every child it serves.
A scathing article in the Seattle Times lays out what everyone knows all too well – teachers are without the proper training and resources to address the needs of their most vulnerable of students.
Because of this, I can certainly relate to certain elements of the Adam Lanza story. I, too, have been forced to homeschool my high school-aged son with Asperger’s because he was unable to withstand the hurly-burly of a huge, urban high school, nor thrive in the self-contained setting they offered with other children who were extremely low functioning. Like Lanza, my son would become easily overwhelmed and take flight from what he was supposed to be doing. When a beloved classroom aide transferred to another school, no one had my son’s back anymore and the school would not be proactive about his triggers, despite my myriad exhortations.
When I withdrew my “problem” child from school, they were nothing but relieved. I asked for homeschool resources and all they gave me was a list of free online courses. The district’s beautifully appointed Homeschool Resource Center, with its science lab, gym, library and classrooms are only for the neurotypical because I was told “they don’t have the budget to service Level 3 Special Ed students." Now, the end result is an isolated teen who becomes more so, consigned to stare at a computer screen all day long.
I’ve been piecing together a new life for my son with my limited resources, but it’s certainly not easy. And then I read of Nancy Lanza, without a financial care in the world, holed up with her degenerating son. Maybe when you live high on a hill in an idyllic town, it’s harder to admit the reality of your life does not match the veneer — that you, in fact, aren’t hacking it as a single mother of a troubled
child and that you need help.
By all accounts, Ms. Lanza’s forays into the community were to escape her troubles, not to share them. It reads like a major mental illness such as schizophrenia had befallen her son, and denial allowed her to believe she could handle him alone. It remains to be seen if her gun collection was secured, but the decision to teach her son to shoot was a tragic one. If she had survived, she likely would’ve faced charges of culpability.
One fact among everything I read stuck with me — Adam Lanza’s problems first became apparent when he started elementary school and he could not find his place amongst his peers. Maybe this is a clue as to why he revisited that scene with such deadly intent.
To be very clear, I am in no way sympathizing with Lanza nor am I justifying the horrific acts he committed. However, due to my own personal
experiences as a single mother with a special needs child, I feel I understand much better than most as to why things unfolded the way they did.
When talking heads now espouse the need to take care of our children, special pains must be made to include all of them, including our most vulnerable. Special education teachers need special training and programs must fit the child, rather than vice versa. Federal pressure must be brought to bear upon school systems who chronically and flagrantly violate the civil rights of our special needs children so that the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975) is not a lofty dream, but a working reality.
The conscience of a nation needs awakening … the dire state of our special education system affects us all.
While still in shock and disbelief from yesterday’s deadly school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I was closely following a real-time feed from ABC when the following was posted to its timeline:
"Ryan Lanza, 24, brother of gunman Adam Lanza, 20, tells authorities that his younger brother is autistic, or has Asperger syndrome and a
“personality disorder.” Neighbors described the younger man to ABC as “odd” and displaying characteristics associated with obsessive-compulsive
My heart sank after reading this update as I immediately knew yet again, those within the autism community, including myself, would have their work cut out for themselves in educating a misinformed public due to yet another high-profile case involving violence and Asperger’s syndrome (a high-functioning form of autism). Case-in-point, The Independent, one of Britian’s national newspapers, reported this morning that Lanza possibly suffers from “Asperger’s disease.”
In January of this year, there was the Los Angeles arson case and then in July, there was the Aurora movie theatre massacre. Now, unfortunately, we have another instance in which autism and violence are being mentioned in the same
breath. This time, however, it is now tied to one of the most heinous acts of mass murder carried out in American history. It’s important to note that in all three of these cases, each of the suspects were thought to have Asperger’s by the media and others. I have yet to see any reports from an actual physician or psychologist confirming these armchair diagnoses.
While the facts of the Newtown school shooting are still emerging, it’s appearing that Lanza may have had a host of psychological and emotional
issues. However, if a high-functioning autism diagnosis is eventually confirmed, everyone needs to remember the following: Adam Lanza carried out these horrific acts in spite of his Asperger’s, not because of it.
As investigators begin to peel away the layers from this young man’s life, I think we’ll learn that many other underlying factors contributed to his
actions. I refuse to speculate what those might be, lest I be guilty of stereotyping others (divorce victims, gamers, etc.) the same way autistics have been stereotyped thus far, both in this case and others.
Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that those with autism or Asperger’s syndrome have a propensity to commit violent crimes. In fact, one study actually disproves this theory altogether and demonstrates that those with autism spectrum disorders are no more likely to commit crimes than their neurotypical counterparts (Barnhill, 2007; Griffith, 10 May 2006).
Further adding to the confusion, the American Psychiatric Association is set to release its DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) in May of next year. This is considered the standard-bearer for classifying and diagnosing mental disorders. In it, Asperger syndrome has been completely removed as a separate condition and merged together with other forms of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). This will undoubtedly further muddy the waters when it comes to the general public’s view on autism, what it is and how it affects those who have it.
My son, who has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, currently attends a mainstream school. My fear is that due to the incessant media
reporting about Adam Lanza’s possible autism, many of his teachers and fellow students will, through no fault of their own, subconsciously look upon him with an element of distrust, speculating whether or not he too is capable of committing similar acts of violence.
The autism community is finally starting to emerge from the "Rain Man" shadow that was cast nearly 25 years ago and the last thing we need is a new stereotype that paints those with the condition as mass murderers. We have too many other battles to fight and do not need this one as well.
It’s my hope that the media will begin to responsibly report on the Connecticut school shooting and its potential autism connection in the coming days and weeks ahead.
A good start would be to properly reference autism as a disorder and not a “disease.”
For those of you who followed my articles in the past, you will know I’ve been out of the autism loop for a while, consumed by the affairs of my immediate family of sixteen-year-old twin sons with high functioning autism.
Having seen them to their junior year of high school, I can tell all of you with younger children that it does get better.
Not withstanding the day in and day out rigors of dealing with autism, the myriad ways you work to bring your child to higher ground do, in fact, manifest in the expanse of time.
Your maelstrom of worries about the future settle out into finding what does and doesn’t work for you and your child.
Problems that seemed insurmountable and behaviors that seemed indelible have a way of easing and even sometimes resolving.
The thing I’ve missed most about not writing is that sense of community, the encouragement and power of knowing that there are other people out there facing the same hardships that I am.
Not being in touch with the most current autism issues is a double-edged sword. I don’t miss the heartbreak of fatalities and children with autism seized by the state, but I do miss the glimmers of light in new employment programs, promising treatments, stories of kindness and inspiration.
So to all of you reading this, I want to wish you a holiday of peace and quiet happiness in which you treasure what gains your child has made and appreciate your own courage and tenacity in being on this journey called autism. You are brave
indeed to ride point for your child.
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Did You Know?
* In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
Out of the enormous tragedy that is Sandy Hook, rays of light are shining forth. Scarlett Lewis is the mother of Jesse Lewis, a six year old victim of the massacre. Moved by the words “Nurturing, Healing, Love” that her son wrote on a blackboard days before his death, she has created the the Jesse […]