Toronto police are defending their decision to handcuff a 9-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome at Fairbank Memorial Day Care Centre on July 28. According to the Toronto Sun, the center called police after they had locked the child in a room. Const. Victor Kwong said the boy was “being aggressive” and had “barricaded himself with tables and chairs… [and] thrown paint all over the room”; officers entered the room, told the boy to lie down and handcuffed him.
While police have been defending themselves, the autism community in Ontario has been quick to criticize law enforcement for using such heavy-handed tactics. Dr. Glenn Rampton, the CEO of Kerry’s Place Autism Services, which serves 5,000 autistic clients across Southern Ontario, said simply, “That wouldn’t be appropriate for any child”:
The boy blamed his tantrum on being bullied during the lunch hour. Children with autistic spectrum disorder can often have outbursts when they become frustrated, Dr. Rampton said. But there are far better ways of dealing with the situation — such as avoiding the triggers and defusing their anger — than mechanically restraining them.
“Why would two great big policemen need to put handcuffs on a nine-year-old when they should be fully capable of calming that child down?” the psychologist demanded. “Maybe they shouldn’t go out on a call like that unless they’re trained to deal with it.”
The child’s mother, Linda Dastous, says that her son is “traumatized” and “devastated”; the child himself says that he’s now “scared” whenever he sees police.
Peter Frampton, director of the center’s parent organization, the Learning Enrichment Foundation, said that his staff “are not able to restrain a child nor should they.” Dastous says, though, that the center simply called 911 rather than contacting her first to defuse the situation.
Margaret Spoelstra, executive director of Autism Ontario, notes that, while her organization has offered training to Toronto police — training that is indeed mandatory for police in New Jersey where I live — Toronto’s law enforcement officials have not taken advantage of it. That failure may have left Dastous’ sons with permanent scars and fears. The Toronto police, says the Toronto Sun, are defending their decision to handcuff the boy but, what they really need to do is acknowledge that their treatment of a 9-year-old child was simply inappropriate. Handcuffing the child shows all too clearly why they need training about autism and helping an autistic person in distress.
There have been some occasions where EMTs or law enforcement has been called when we have been out in public and our teenage son Charlie has been in the middle of an “episode” (one such time was when a terrible sore in his mouth landed us in the doctors’ office the day after Christmas; Charlie was in so much pain he broke a window in the waiting room, at which point the EMTs were called). Each time, officers have been very respectful in the midst of a crisis and always asked my husband and I how to proceed in approaching, speaking to, making contact with Charlie. I am sure this respectful treatment stems from the mandatory autism education for police and shows how a little training can go a very long way.
What happened to Dastous’ son points to a continued misuse of not only handcuffs on autistic children, but physical force, restraints and other abusive practices. CBS Atlanta recently reported that the parents of a child with disabilities, now-18-year-old Alex Williams, has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder as a result of being abused by his teacher, Melanie Pickens, at Hopewell Middle School in Milton, Georgia, between 2004 and 2007. Attorney Chris Vance says that Alex was “severely abused for a year, pushed down, had his book bag shoved at him, thrown to the ground, called names, secluded in a room by himself, lights off, tied to a Rifton chair, abandoned.”
There are simply too many reports about such excessively forceful treatment of autistic children and individuals, whether by police or by teachers. But there are methods that demonstrate understanding of an autistic persons’ sensory and communication challenges and that can indeed defuse a difficult situation, rather than make it worse.
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