The State vs Autism Families

A series of disturbing news stories paints a grim picture of the State’s intervention in the families of individuals with autism.

Perhaps the most harrowing case emerged from The Detroit Free Press, who recently published a six-part investigation into the Wendrow family, who have a teen daughter with severe autism and a son with Asperger’s Syndrome. The parents pressed for their daughter’s school to use facilitated communication (FC), a highly controversial technique in which a facilitator aids an individual in typing their thoughts. When the Wendrow’s daughter assisted keyboarding began spelling out allegations of sexual abuse committed by her father and brother, a nightmare of epic proportions began in which the parents spent time in jail and their children were placed in separate juvenile homes and kept apart from their parents for 106 days.

Authorities acted upon an assumption of guilt even when a sexual assault test found no proof and a prosecution witness insisted their was no abuse. For her part, the aide refused to believe she was influencing the daughter’s typing, even though the child was clearly not capable of the complex language being attributed to her. The judge who finally dismissed the case described it as “a runaway train."

In another case out of Canada, Derek Hoare briefly lost sight of his nine-year-old daughter who was playing in their backyard which is surrounded by a six-foot fence. He immediately called police and a frantic search found her safe and sound over at the neighbor’s pool. 

Happy ending, right? Not exactly.

Four days later, Hoare’s daughter was removed from his home by authorities, who maintained they were lightening the load of the single father of three. The daughter is being held in a psychiatric facility and can’t even see her father until a hearing determines his rights.

London brings us the story of a judge finally ruling that a 21-year-old man with autism had been unlawfully detained and his human rights breached when a center that his father brought him to for brief respite care refused to release him after the agreed upon two-week period. The center was concerned about the way the son acted while there and committed him to a “positive behavior unit." It took a year for his devoted adoptive father to win his release.

Once a child is taken away from the home, the process for achieving his or her return is horribly long, which makes it all-the-more important to take utmost care in making initial decisions. Obviously, any child summarily torn from their family is going to be traumatized, but for the child with autism, the trauma expands exponentially. Given the condition of psychiatric units, residential centers and foster homes, these stories are even scarier. Loss of custody means loss of parental choices over treatment. In foreign environments, children are subjected to drugs and other actions the parent would never consent to.

Clearly in the Wendrow case, the starting point should’ve been a closer examination of FC. In the story of single father Derek Hoare, in-home support and a tracking bracelet would’ve been in order. And for the poor dad who lost his adult son, the son was obviously acting differently in the center than he would at home and in-home respite care would’ve been the answer. 

The flip-side of these stories are the tragic tales of lack of intervention as in the case in which a woman strangled her son with autism, or the beleaguered mother of a child with both cancer and autism who withheld chemotherapy from him. Surely, a mother escaping a battering husband living with her son with autism in a motel room is the epitome of a red flag scenario, as is the single mother enduring caring for her critically ill child at home with no help and support.

I worry about the power of the State over autism families because of the zeal in which they pursue dubious cases and the increasing number of tragic outcomes from families that fall through the cracks.