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Eleven-year-old felons? Let’s get a grip. Part 2: Abuse

January 7, 2010

In the first part of this post, I tried to point out the absurdity of Zakhqurey Price’s situation, and asked for people to try to help him.

If you haven’t heard about this case, Zakh–an 11-year-old autistic boy–is facing felony assault charges in Arkansas. He had a meltdown, hit school personnel who were trying to restrain him, and they decided to make a point by calling in the cops.

I also pointed out how the circumstances surrounding his arrest went past wrongheaded ridiculouslessness and into abuse.

This is unfortunately common.

To quote from an earlier post:

An aside: Why is this crap excused, besides the fact that it’s frequently tied up in weird power structures? FWD/Forward offers some excellent observations on this in the related context of Outrageous pre-existing conditions: “Which contributes to the very popular cultural myth that people with medical conditions are somehow to blame for them — that they must have done something to earn them, that it’s their own fault they ended up that way, and therefore they lose rights to certain things because they are inflicting the costs of their mistakes on the rest of us. Because if you haven’t done anything wrong, you won’t ever end up sick. If you do end up sick, there must be something you did wrong…We get why these things are done. And they’re done to those people. Over there. Not to me and mine.” They express this the most succinctly I have seen. Whether you’re blaming thimerosol or chemical imbalances, or a refrigerator mother, or being out of favor with God–there must be a working explanation in which someone has done something wrong. That obviously makes it OK to treat those people differently. This applies just as well to any sort of “mental disorder”, which seems to be scarier than a straightforwardly physical disability.

Disabled kids get abused a lot, and not much is done about it. And disabled adult women, mentally ill people, and basically anyone with a developmental disability: “Are we concerned about abuse for everyone? Historically, individuals labeled developmentally disabled (also known as mentally retarded) have been treated with less concern than most people. Is this because they sometimes behave or communicate differently? Unfortunately, many people have been institutionalized because of these differences. Recent surveys (Baladerian, 1991; Crossmaker, 1991; Enfield, 1992; Sobsey & Doe, 1991) suggest an increased risk of abuse in persons with developmental disabilities, especially if they have been institutionalized. Abuse ranges from overt physical attacks to more insidious forms of intimidation and neglect.” A lot of this happens in “treatment” contexts. (As anyone ever confined to a psych unit “for their own good” can attest, short of Stockholm Syndrome.) Autism is also known as Pervasive Developmental Disorder. People who have suffered abuse are more likely to show various symptoms and behave in ways that seem strange in the first place, and are then more likely to be abused because they’re “sick”. As Sylvia Caras points out, It’s Time to Stop Permitting Abuse.

I would highly recommend reading Shropshire’s, Herefordshire and Worcestershire Safeguarding Children Boards’ Child Protection Procedures for Safeguarding Children section on Abuse of Disabled Children, along with Virginia Focht-New’s Beyond Abuse: Treatment Approaches for People With Disabilities. Both take pains to emphasize just how much abuse happens in “treatment” and “educational” settings. You do not have to hit or physically restrain a kid to abuse them; emotional abuse, including the things you tell them about themselves, can hurt at least as much.

As a society, we need to stop condoning abuse. Period.

One post at I’M SOMEWHERE ELSE, They hate you. Yes, you. is very applicable here:

The only reason they’re not about me is that I’m old and verbal enough to not be vulnerable to that kind of abuse. They would be all too happy to practice it on me if they could. Autistic people do not get abused because they are low-functioning, they get abused because they do weird things.

We certainly do not need to compound the abuse by shoving the understandably upset victims into the criminal justice system, or into psychiatric institutions. This approach is intellectually and morally bankrupt.

I was glad to see that Zakh’s grandmother recognized that forced psychiatric hospitalization would do more harm than good for him. I hope he manages to stay out of that system, which–DSM inclusion or no–is particularly ill-equipped to deal with autistic or developmentally disabled people. The best he could hope for is tons of neuroleptics to control his behavior, which are especially problematic for autistics.

There is also the probability of more instititutional abuse, and the difficulty of staying sane in insane places (including the public schools, as they’re being run).

I have tried to stay away from recounting personal experience here; a number of my other posts do that. This is not about individuals, so much as about the systems individuals are trapped in. Kids like Zakh–and their scary violent behavior (taken completely out of context)–are not the main problem here, no matter how much investment too many people have in believing this and pushing it as The Truth.

The kind of thinking that keeps this going is the same kind of “all or nothing”, “might makes right”, “it’s OK to hit people”, “some people deserve what they get” thinking that has landed us in multiple wars and an economic mess, among other things. It’s wétiko, pure and simple, and it chews people up. It damages everyone involved.

At the same time, this is all about individual human beings, and human rights. I can’t help but think of Bev’s incisive Therein lies the problem graph:

Pie chart with text: When I say autism, you say, with something involving human rights as the tiniest possible sliver

I will add some background, after all, as illustration. I’m autistic and in my mid-30s. When I was younger, they didn’t know to pathologize the way my nervous system is set up as autistic, so they called it “inappropriate anger” (in response to abusive treatment), purposeful disruption, and all sorts of other things. Not being considered autistic back then did not stop me from getting abused, for many of the reasons detailed in these posts.

A violent meltdown at home landed me in a psychiatric hospital when I was a couple of years older than Zakh; until I moved completely across the Atlantic from a bad situation five years ago, I was force-marched into a career as a “broken” mental patient. I was given many different psychiatric labels–finally settling on bipolar with psychotic features, and a whole slew of anxiety disorders–and doped to the gills for it. This did not help, but instead did a great deal of harm.

They weren’t arresting kids back then for this kind of thing, or I’d have ended up in Zakh’s situation. I had meltdowns in school from the time I started; before that, I had meltdowns and got smacked/held down over it in the brief experiment with daycare (that would be why it was brief!). My kindergarten teacher recognized that I was truly upset, even if she did not understand why, and let me calm down in a quiet area; she was the exception. I never hit a teacher, because none of them tried to lay hands on me while I was having a meltdown. Unfortunately, this was not the case with my parents, both of whom I hit during meltdowns after they would not allow me to leave the room, but instead yelled and put their hands on me. The official explanation for my reaction? I was a dangerous monster who should be ashamed of myself for the rest of my life, and was sorely in need of meds to control this.

Much like the situation leading to Zakh Price’s arrest, this was a bad one all around. With more understanding–and less resistance to empathy, much less insistence on turning everything into an adversarial conflict–things are unlikely to reach this point in the first place.

I know firsthand about institutional abuse, and the long-lasting effects, such as PTSD, which it can have on a person. I know about being blamed for pretty much everything; hey, there’s something obviously wrong with her, she must be to blame in this situation! It’s bad enough to insist on placing blame on somebody if something bad happens, but is even more dangerously unbalanced when a disabled (odd-acting) child becomes a family’s or school’s scapegoat.

This is particularly disturbing in one context that came up in the Institutions and PTSD post: how frequently “the lasting effects of ill treatment [are] attributed | to | autism itself. Seeing some feelings and behaviors directly attributed to PTSD, in a way that makes complete sense, really made me think about this. It seems much more likely that being autistic has made me stand out as a target, and possibly made me more vulnerable to some of the aspects of the PTSD.”

I am concerned about how many people this may be happening to, before we even get to drug effects. As observed in a comment on a post I ran across last night at Lunatic Fringe:

Note the above and very odd part of a definition with apathy, lack of initiative, and limited emotional range translating into confusion and agitation reduction, and psychomotor activity normalization…Give a person these drugs, and given apathy, lack of initiative, and a limited range of emotions, somebody is going to be calling that person mentally ill.

And/or autistic. At this point, the behavioral “symptoms” are actually coming from the medication and/or the effects of trauma, in either case. This will not improve anyone’s situation, to state the obvious.

I was lucky to be able to get out of a bad life situation, and be able to start recovering from some of the harm that had been done–a great deal of which I’d internalized and kept inflicting on myself.

Just realizing that you can, indeed, learn some emotional regulation has helped immensely. Finding out that the sensory issues are real, and you can learn to cope with them, has been at least as important, and has helped an awful lot with the emotional regulation thing. And just because people who do not really have your best interests in mind keep saying all sorts of bad things about you–including that you are “broken”, and can never really amount to anything–that doesn’t make it so. Applying some mindfulness, compassion, and kindness (including for yourself!) can help you find some balance in your life.

Telling people that they’re “broken” and “bad” from the time they’re children will not help them have decent lives. That is about as disabling as you can possibly get.

The impact? After my last psych hospitalization (involuntary, at 16), one psychologist I actually liked recruited me for a long-term followup study of former adolescent inpatients; I continued to do periodic interviews and fill out scads of forms and inventories until I figured out that I could say “Enough!” just a few years ago. This was a teaching hospital in North Carolina, with a rather high volume of adolescent psych patients. One of the major reasons they kept me on so long, to the point of paying me for transportation out of pocket and the lead researcher stopping by to interview me when he was in the UK, was that I was their big success story. They were not shy about telling me that I was. I finished high school, was the first in the group to start college (later crashing out or no), I never developed a chemical dependency problem (other than prescription psych meds!), I briefly held some paying jobs (even though I ended up on SSI), and I still haven’t been arrested for anything. Out of their fairly large sample group, I was the only one who fit all of those criteria. Seriously.

This is what you can create. Many of the other kids were coming out of traumatic, foster care backgrounds, and whatever problems they had starting out were not helped by their dealings with this other part of the same system. I do have to wonder how the “crazy burden, what can you expect?” messages affected them, with some pretty keen suspicions.

Far more than thinking about my own trauma, the thing that makes me absolutely disgusted and livid about Zakh’s case is that–after all this crap he’s getting put through–it will be that much harder for him to find his own reasonably balanced path in life. Too many people I know in person–autistic, carrying mental illness diagnoses, what have you–are still getting crushed to the point that they can barely poke their heads up far enough to draw breath. Hopefully some day they’ll be able to figure out what they really want in life, and ways of working toward that which suit their strengths (if they can recognize they have some!), but it will be very difficult for them not to feel too “broken” and discouraged.

This is totally unnecessary and unconscionable. Nobody should be treated like this, nobody.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2010 6:11 pm

    “are still getting crushed to the point that they can barely poke their heads up far enough to draw breath.”

    And when they lash out at what is sometimes decades of abuse and provocation, they are labelled Autistic Psychopaths.

    • urocyon permalink
      January 11, 2010 2:32 am

      Unfortunately true. 😦 It’s really handy for some, the way this is set up. Argh.

  2. ther1 permalink
    February 2, 2011 3:58 pm

    I recently read a news story about a very large middle schooler (about 200 lb.) who was tazed multiple times for attacking a student. He would not back off or allow himself to be moved because he was in a rage state. That is definitely unacceptable behavior on both his and his teacher’s part.

    Someone on the comments page mused, “I hope this isn’t another case of a ‘weird kid’ being teased until he finally flipped.” The student hadn’t been teasing him at the time-she was arguing with him over the food he stole from her. His teachers thought this was the cause of his fit, but there has to be more than just that going on.

    Naturally the less sensitive on the comments page called him names like “animal” and “retard.” Then the child abuse jokes (“‘put the fatty in the zoo,’ ‘taze him some more!'”) followed. It would have been wrong to let him continue attacking. Yet I sense a lack of context in the article.

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