Disability Benefits and the “Adult Baby”
Stanley Thornton is a 30-year-old California man who pretends to be a baby: He sleeps in a (quite large) crib, wears XXL diapers and drinks from a bottle. His roommate Miss Dias, who is not related to him, plays the role of “mother.” Thornton has “infantilism,” says SFGate:
Often infantalism is a sexual fetish, but that’s not the case for Stanley. “I like to play or be treated as a baby to get the love and affection and safeness,” Stanley tells “[National Geographic's Taboo show]. For some people it’s a sexual thing but for most of us we’re doing it to relax. You come home from work and you change into baby mode. You put away your adult stuff and that life gets put on hold.”
Stanley has found a community of fellow infantalists online. When he first started having the urge to act like a baby at age 14, he says that he was really scared and thought his feelings were strange. But now that he has connected with others like himself he’s comfortable with his lifestyle.
According to SFGate, Thornton and his roommate both collect disability payments from the federal government. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma thinks that Thornton should be able to hold down a job as he’s shown he can work: Since 2000, Thornton has run an online adult baby support group, http://www.bedwettingabdl.com. He also has carpentry skills. On the National Geographic segment, he is shown building baby furniture big enough for an adult. Coburn has asked the Social Security Administration to investigate Thornton’s benefits:
In a letter to Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll, Coburn wrote, “Given that Mr. Thornton is able to determine what is appropriate attire and actions in public, drive himself to complete errands, design and custom make baby furniture to support a 350-pound adult and run an Internet support group, it is possible that he has been improperly collecting disability benefits for a period of time.”
Thornton responded with a letter responding Washington Times saying that:
…he is not capable of working. He said running the website only takes four hours a month, and he said his craftsman skills were overstated by the program, which showed him working on his adult-sized high chair.
“What you saw on camera being drilled was pre-assembled the day before. All I did was drill six holes for the camera,” he said.
On his biography on his bedwettingabdl.com website, Thornton says that he worked as a security guard for a year and a half but trauma resulting from childhood abuse and other mental problems left him unable to work. He has been receiving SSI payments for most of the last 10 years.
The term “adult baby” is troubling to me. I’m the mother of an autistic teenager who has lots of challenges in communicating and learning — who can’t talk very well, or read — who won’t be able to live without full-time support. Some people do refer to their adult autistic children with such needs as “toddlers in an adult-size body,” and there are individuals who are severely disabled such that some might say they are “like babies” as far as their not being able to take care of themselves. But I can’t emphasize enough that adults with developmental disabilities, and adults with disabilities including autism spectrum disorders, are NOT “toddlers in adult-size bodies.”
Many parents and teachers of disabled children have worked hard to teach a child to feed her or himself and to handle their own self-care needs, such as personal hygiene. If anything, we shrink from hearing our children being called something like “adult babies.” With all respects to Thornton and his difficulties (which I know only about from what I’ve read on his website and in the articles cited in this post), I find the association of “adult babies” and disability benefits unsettling as it suggests that those who receive such benefits are indeed “babies” in adult bodies, unable to care for themselves. Quite to the contrary, my son — and many individuals with disabilities — is more than eager to work, but is denied a job, like Elsa Sallard who Starbucks fired rather than making accommodations for her dwarfism.
The Atlantic uses the case of Thornton to talk about disability insurance reform and the need to support individuals with disabilities working so that they have other choices besides becoming “dependent on government checks”:
Social Security disability insurance was designed for the 1950s, when a quarter of the labor force was in manufacturing and employment often meant strenuous labor. In a service and Web economy, thousands of disabled people can still be highly productive in the economy. Autor and Duggan suggest building a universal disability insurance program similar to unemployment insurance, to make disability available to all workers. Shifting disability insurance toward helping people work rather than forcing them to become dependent on the government would both help the economy and save billions of dollars a year.
“Of course, many SSDI recipients are truly incapacitated,” James Ledbetter wrote out in a takedown of SSDI in Slate. But many are employable. We need an insurance system that encourages the disabled to work rather than pay them under the condition that they don’t. It’s time to have this debate.
My son has seven more years of school. Next fall, he moves up to the secondary school program in the county autism center he attends. A huge focus of this program will be on training him for a job. Charlie loves to be busy and to do things. A nightmare for my husband and me would be for him — like some of the autistic adults who’ve graduated from their programs described in the Kennebec Journal — to be sitting at home, unable to use any of the skills his teachers, Jim and I have dedicated our lives to teach him.
One day soon Charlie, and many other autistic children, will be autistic adults; will be adult adults. We need to start creating and supporting opportunities that will enable them to lead the fulfilling, productive and good lives that Charlie and many others can.
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