Barbaric School Punishment of Children with Autism Still Legal 

A shocking story out of Texas reminds us of the need for a federal law banning the use of aversive measures in educational settings. Children with autism at Exley Elementary School in Katy had cotton balls soaked in vinegar put in their mouths as werewas forced to go on a treadmill longer and faster as a form of punishment. Incredibly, no laws exist to prohibit these and other nationally reported tactics such as being denied food and water, spraying students in the eyes with lemon juice, force feeding and shaving cream being put in the mouth. 

Outraged parents, Carol and Bill Rutar, point out that if an adult did this to a child, he or she would be arrested and if this happened to a neurotypical child in a general education setting, there would be a public hue and cry against it. At this time, Exley Elementary is now under investigation. The principal would only go so far as to say that “a treadmill was used” and “vinegar was introduced." While the school will obviously not be in any legal trouble, hopefully the negative attention will lead to aversives being banned. But Texas still allows corporal punishment in schools, so the children with autism may just get paddled instead.

When my son with autism was in fourth grade, he habitually got thrown out of his classroom for stimming behaviors such as tapping his pencil. Then he was confined to a closet-sized room and forced to forego both lunch and recess to complete the work he missed while he was sobbing in the hall. Unfortunately, this is but one example of the barbaric treatment he has suffered at the hands of the school system. After so many years and so many incidents, I am home schooling him for high school.

Much progress has been made in autism awareness, but ignorance is still deeply rooted in our educational systems, which lags shocking behind current best practices for autism. National legislation is desperately needed to combat the horrible things that can happen to our children when they go to school.

Aspiritech Provides Tech Jobs for Individuals with Autism

It’s common knowledge that adult individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are chronically underemployed or unemployed. But shockingly, a 2009 U.S. Department of Education survey found that the employment rate for young adults with autism was at the same level as that for deaf-and-blind young adults and even below that of individuals with blindness alone, learning disabilities or traumatic brain injuries.

In the midst of this dismal reality, some progress is being made. 

Yet another company hiring individuals with Asperger’s for computer tech jobs is finding success, this time in Highland Park, Illinois. Aspiritech draws inspiration from the Danish company called Specialisterne, or “the Specialists” which seeks to find tech employment for a million individuals on the spectrum through its global chapters. NonPareil, an autism non-profit tech training center in Plano, Texas is still another program we’ve recently reported on that plans to provide living quarters and jobs to high and lower functioning individuals as the company expands.

Organizations such as Aspiritech, The Specialists and nonPareil harness the intense focus, love of repetition and detail-oriented nature of individuals with autism to great effect. The companies’ prestigious clients are uniformly pleased with the results of hiring ASD companies. 

Dan Tedesco of Shelton, Conn.-based HandHold Adaptive, used Aspiritech to test an iPhone application, noting, “There is a pride in their product you don’t usually see in this type of work” and that “they exceeded his expectations.” He found their prices competitive and appreciated being able hire within the U.S.

Many of Aspiritech’s software testers were adults when they first learned they were on the autism spectrum, missing out on the tremendous strides in autism in the course of their lifetime. Aspiritech gives them a safe and understanding work environment and also helps them forge needed social skills by teaching the 20- and 30-somethings how to work together and taking them on organized outings in the community such as bowling and dining in restaurants.

Right now, the company’s revenue is 60% donations and 40% revenue from clients, an equation they hope to keep rebalancing — in the immediate future, they seek 50/50 revenue. Employees are paid $12 to $15/hour, with the appreciation that they are learning job skills that will prepare them for bright futures within the tech industry.

I’m thinking there should be a humanities equivalent of these kind of job initiatives. Not everyone with autism is a techie. I would love to see equivalent programs for careers in the media and arts.


Bananas, Autism and a Heavy-Handed Response

Stafford, Virginia brings us a ridiculous story of a fourteen-year-old boy with autism who was taken away in handcuffs after attempting to win the hearts of classmates by dressing up in a banana suit and running across the field during halftime of a football game. Later released to his mother without charges, his high school principal settled on a punishment of ten days suspension while backing off her initial impulse to expel him.

Students rallied around him by wearing “Free Banana Man” t-shirts, which the principal immediately banned. That’s when the ACLU stepped in over the violation of freedom of speech. A flood of negative press ensued and compelled the school to apologize for the infringement of students’ civil rights and lift the remaining five days of Bryan “Banana Man” Thompson’s suspension.

However, Bryan  is still on probation for the remaining five days and the principal has expressed concern that he will be a disruptive force at school since he has so many new friends and supporters. 

A socially isolated teen suddenly having new admirers? The horror!!

Bryan’s mother is rightfully nervous about him being under the microscope upon his return. 

The location of Stafford, Virginia rang a bell for me. It’s the town where Neli Latson, another teenager with Asperger’s, was racially profiled as he sat outside waiting for the public library to open.  Neli remains in jail for assaulting an officer who suddenly threw him over the hood of a squad car and tried to cuff him after he wouldn’t tell him his name. His mother is still working feverishly to secure his release from prison.

I would be remiss not to mention the fact that both Neli and Bryan are African American, making for some unsettling coincidences in relation to unusually harsh punishments for minorities on the autism spectrum in Stafford.
Bryan’s mother suggested that Banana Man become the school mascot, as he brought so much joy to the crowd during his brief debut, but I doubt the principal will have the good sense or grace to allow it.

Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome and Autism

Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome (PDA) is the term for an obsessional avoidance of the ordinary demands of everyday life. The child with PDA exhibits a level of social understanding and ability that makes them able to be manipulative in their avoidance. Coupled with a capacity for imaginative play, early appreciation was that PDA was a stand alone diagnosis. More recently, however, clinicians recognize it as a feature of autism spectrum disorders.

Children with PDA require a different approach, particularly in the educational environment. The school environment, with its incessant demands and expectations and concomitant system of rewards and punishment, is a minefield of anxiety for the PDA student. Educators need to be less openly demanding and more negotiating, abandoning the tenet of uniformity in dealing with all students. Flexibility is required, as classroom expectations need to be modified according to the child’s given emotional state and situation. Rather than being head-on in their dealings, teachers need to be oblique, avoiding a clash of wills. A relationship of trust and respect between the teacher and student is the cornerstone of success.

Learning about PDA rings like a bell for me personally. My fifteen-year-old son is the perfect embodiment of this condition. His tumultuous educational experiences are a direct product of teachers being unwilling and/or unable to modify their approach to him based upon his extreme anxiety around everyday demands of school life. Almost with out exception, his teachers felt the best course of action was to face him down over work expectations, thinking this would lead to the “extinguishing” of his behaviors. What it lead to was more and more explosive behaviors and the triggering of his dangerous Crohn’s symptoms. As I write this, he is going to high school online because of the failure of yet another school placement.

Counter-intuitive to the training and beliefs of educators and administrators, it’s going to require a lot of work to bring our schools up to speed on PDA. Even the teacher in the psychiatric ward of the hospital where my son was twice confined for his anxiety, left him convulsing on the floor for an hour when he refused to do a math worksheet.

There is real urgency to this problem. Educators need to realize that individualizing their approach to a child with PDA is not a capitulation to that child’s manipulations, but the honoring of their distinct and very real condition.

Study Finds Correlation Between Atheism and Autism

A recent study from the University of Boston suggests that individuals with high-functioning autism are more likely to be atheists and to reject organized religion in general. Data garnered from autism forums and surveys of individuals with Asperger’s syndrome found that those respondents to be largely atheist, followed by having their own system of beliefs, then agnostic, then lastly Christian and Jewish. Speculation is that the high-functioning person’s penchant for logical reasoning and concrete thinking, and their discomfort with metaphor and figures of speech account for the findings.

When asked for comment, Caroline Hattersley, a spokesperson for The National Autistic Society somewhat defensively said, “Autism affects people from every sector of society and people with autism represent the full range of religious and non-religious beliefs."

One factor blatantly absent in this study is whether or not the respondents were raised in households where going to church is a regular part of their lives. Many families would actually like their children on the spectrum to attend church, but cannot find a place of worship willing and able to take their children into the fold. 

Congregations must be educated in autism and have the forbearance to appreciate that disruptions can and will occur. Some strides are being made in modifying church services, assigning shadows to help a child through the service and/or creating special services for the developmentally disabled. 

I heard of one Lutheran church that hosts an autism service which is half as long and offers a visual prompt program to follow. Here in Seattle, a church my son and I went to had stations where you engage in different activities like dropping a stone into a bowl of water to symbolize releasing anger or writing a prayer on a strip of cloth, then communally weaving the pieces together. He loved the interactive nature of the experience and came away in high spirits.

With twin teenaged high-functioning sons in my house, we have many lively religious and political discussions. My second son, who is a scientist at heart, particularly exhibits this Mr. Spock-ean propensity to spurn anything that is not logical. In fact, the last time he ever went trick or treating, he costumed himself as that Star Trek character. He approaches the subject of religion with a demand for proof.

In my mind, God made our kids with autism and values and loves those whose neurological biases render them outside the mainstream of society’s legalistic and religious tenets.

Pica and Autism

Pica is an abnormal craving for non-edible substances. The word “pica” comes from the Latin word for magpie, a bird known for eating anything in its path. Children between the age of two and three, and/or people with developmental disabilities display pica behavior such as consuming dirt, hair, foam, paper, etc. Hospitalizations for pica incidents have risen a startling 93% over the last ten years, a jump attributed to the rise in autism. Women and children with autism are most vulnerable to pica. 

Geophagy is the term for pica sufferers who eat dirt. Among the other common cravings are clay, paint chips, plaster, chalk, cornstarch, laundry starch, baking soda, coffee grounds, cigarette ashes & butts, feces,buttons, glue, ice, sand and toothpaste.

Obviously, many of these substances pose considerable dangers such as lead poisoning from paint chips, gastrointestinal obstructions, bowel problems, dental calamities, parasitic infections from dirt and feces and intestinal perforation.

The very young all go through the stage of putting everything in their mouths, but some children persist with the behavior. Pica behaviors can indicate dietary deficiencies such as anemia. Some children simply lack the ability to discriminate between edible and non-edible substances, while others have sensory issues like a need for oral stimulation. Still others may have mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia. 

What can you do if your child has pica? 

Scrupulous attention to child-proofing your home is recommended, as is personal vigilance in watching your child. Consultation with a nutritional expert may unearth deficiencies which can be addressed. Many have reported that the addition of zinc to a child’s diet alleviates pica. Sensory chew toys can provide a viable outlet for the child seeking oral stimulation. Behavior modification is a useful approach, but should be handled with consistency by a professional lest the behaviors simply be driven into secrecy. Because so many factors contributed to pica, it’s best to get help in determining the best plan to keep your child safe from foreign substances they introduce to their own bodies.

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Apple Expanding Into Disability and Autism Markets

iPad for Autism


Apple’s invention of the iPad was a happy accident in unleashing a new wave of possibilities for individuals on the autism spectrum. This device with its easy touch screen interface and ever expanding array of apps for increasing communication, is now in the toolbox of useful equipment for autism.

An exciting development in this arena is the autism smartphone. Created by the mother of a non-verbal ASD child, the Grace app is essentially a digital version of the Picture Exchange Communications System (PEC), a laminated picture book intended to promote expressive language. The Grace app is now available for both iPads and iPhones at the reasonable price of $38 and reports are that it is a vast improvement over its unwieldy PEC predecessor.

According to Disability Scoop, Apple has filed patent applications publicly disclosed this month that indicate their desire to keep expanding their disability market. Individuals with dexterity issues and/or vision problems have trouble with touchscreen devices so Apple is seeking connecting devices such as a joystick or straw for breath activation to remedy those problems. 

Advances in assistive technology are coming fast and furious. Eye-gaze technology already exists that can track the movement of one eye to activate a computer. Rumor has it that Apple is researching the possibility of adding this Swedish technology to the iPad.

Profit motive and public good seldom align, but Apple’s boom times in the disability market signal a symbiotic relationship that will continue to improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities and autism.

Autism, CPS and Wandering

Joshua Robb, an eight year old child with autism has been successfully rescued after running away from his elementary school and being lost in the San Bernardino National Forest for over 24-hours.

“Thank you … you saved me,” were the boy’s first words to rescuers — words made all the more poignant because he rarely speaks and his parents doubted his ability to appreciate his circumstance.

Those parents had lost custody of him to Child Protective Services (CPS) because they had tied him to a chair while they were in the process of moving from their recently foreclosed house. Apparently, they felt it the only way to guarantee that he would not run away in the confusion and chaos of packing and clearing out of their home.

While I in no way condone tying a child to a chair to prevent elopement, I also don’t condone CPS automatically removing children with autism from their families around issues of wandering. 

Ayn Hoare of Canada, the young child seized by that country’s version of CPS after she left her fenced yard and was subsequently found safe and sound still has not been returned to her father. Apparently, investigative reports of Ayn’s sometimes violent behavior at school led authorities to believe that she should be institutionalized and placed on anti-psychotic medication, then given to strangers.

Wandering has recently been given a diagnostic code in the recognition that it is a growing and legitimate problem. Instead of making parents vulnerable to losing their children, instances of elopement or misguided elopement prevention should bring families more needed services. Parenting classes on how to prevent elopement, tracking bracelets free of charge, respite care so that a stressed family can have a safe place for their child to be, particularly when confronting trauma such as a foreclosure, need to supplant criminalization of parents and the destruction of the child’s stability.

Obviously, even Joshua’s school couldn’t prevent him from going missing. Ripping a child with autism from their family, if that family is loving yet invariably imperfect, is no solution to the crisis of autism wandering. It sets off a tragic chain of events that takes months to unravel and trauma that may never fully heal.

Neurofeedback for Autism

Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback which employs electroencephalography (EEG) and functional neuroimaging processes to focus upon the central nervous system and the brain. By using monitoring devices attached through sensors on the scalp, neurofeedback detects, amplifies and records brain activity, pinpointing areas of the brain that are either hyperactive or disconnected.

Neurofeedback training (NFT) can be initiated as early as age one or two and may provide a foundation for treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Doctors believe that autistic brain lack the basic “pruning” skills that are a natural process of early neurotypical brain development.

NFT helps remediate brain imbalances of excitation and inhibition through the careful guidance of a trained practitioner. Nerves with high connectivity are assisted with advanced NFT approaches that facilitate coherence. Deficient active nerves are brought to a level of normal function that helps build rapport between the brain and body.

Often, the trainee is not consciously aware of the mechanisms by which ensuing positive changes are accomplished. They experience no pain during the non-invasive, drug-free experience.

While not definitive, a recent scientific study does suggest that improvement in the condition of children with autism after undergoing NFT is actually because it addresses a co-morbid condition of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Although the study acknowledges that it was limited in scope, it casts doubt that NFT is appropriate for ASD alone.

Like Sensory Processing Disorder, ADD frequently goes hand in hand with autism. Few children with autism escape concomitant problems. The heartening take away is that improvement in one area carries over into others.

For more information on neurofeedback and autism you may choose to attend this free webinar.


Susan Moffitt is the mother of high functioning twin sons with autism. When not advocating for them, she pursues her multiple creative passions of fine art, piano composition and writing. She is the author of "Upstream," a compilation of poetry, fiction and anecdotal tales that deal with raising twins with autism. For more information, visit

Autism Science Breakthroughs and Personal Qualms

The Australian reports that researchers have identified two biologically different strains of autism, a breakthrough likened to the discovery of different forms of cancer in the 1960s.

Researchers from the University of California Davis’s MIND Institute in Sacramento began the Autism Phenome Project, a longitudinal autism study undertaken in 2006. By studying the brain growth, environmental exposure and genetic make-up of 350 children aged between 2 and 3.5 years, they uncovered two biologically distinct sub-types of autistic brain development.

One group comprised entirely of boys, had enlarged brains and most of the subjects had regressed into autism after 18 months of age. The second group, whose sex was unidentified, appeared to have compromised immune systems.

Research leader and Psychiatry professor David Amaral hopes the findings will lead to more individualized treatment. For instance, if a child has an immune form of autism, manipulating the immune system would be of primary concern. Similarly, focusing on the synaptic functions in the enlarged brain typical of the second strain of autism identified would take precedence.

Amaral predicts that they will discover as many kinds of autism as there are forms of cancer. The recent findings are seen as a key to understanding the causes of autism, developing appropriate and effective treatments, and arriving at a cure.

Another scientific story coming from Australia is that researchers are close to being able to offer new screening tests for unborn babies by which likelihood of autism can be established prenatally. Senior Research Fellow Dr. Andrew Whitehouse of Telethon Institute for Child Health Research remarked, “What we hope to do is identify risk factors or biological markers that may tell us this fetus could be at increased risk of autism later in life so we can increase the monitoring of that child after birth."

While these stories are seemingly good news, they both give me reason to pause. One can only hope that treatment protocols experience breakthroughs at the same rate as research. My son with autism also has Crohn’s, an autoimmune disease. In the hospital, his doctors’ idea of “manipulating the immune system” was to shut it down with Remicaid, a powerful, lifelong chemotherapy course known to induce rheumatoid arthritis and lymphoma frequently enough that it carries a black box warning.

At some peril we escaped that fate. Two years later, his Crohn’s is in remission through diet, supplements and LDN, a cream that is rubbed into the skin, serving to regulate the immune system. While he is at his healthiest ever, his treatment plan is considered radical, even subversive by the vast majority of doctors.

In the future, I can see different strains of autism being treated like cancer – powerful drugs attacking the problem. Except autism isn’t cancer and many people feel it to be an alternate reality rather than something to be eradicated. 

Which brings us to the in utero screening for autism. How can this not spell pregnancy terminations for worried would be parents? 

My conclusion is that we are perched on top of a very slippery slope in which “progress” will be judged subjectively by all the autism stakeholders.


Susan Moffitt is the mother of high functioning twin sons with autism. When not advocating for them, she pursues her multiple creative passions of fine art, piano composition and writing. She is the author of "Upstream," a compilation of poetry, fiction and anecdotal tales that deal with raising twins with autism. For more information, visit

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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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