December 2008


I had planned to write a post about the school’s holiday program which we went to yesterday, but when checking my email I came upon this news story.

Suicide Prompts School Policy Criticism

The bottom line is that an autistic 13 year old boy hanged himself in the school’s “time-out room,” which was essentially an empty room used for solitary confinement. As the article itself says, it questions and criticizes the practice of putting special needs kids in a room by themself to help them calm down during aggressive episodes.

I know a lot of people are outraged at the thought of their kids being given that kind of time-out. As a result, my thoughts on this are not popular with a lot of special needs parents. I have a severely challenged son. At 11 he is mostly non-verbal. He’s only been potty-trained for 3 years. My son can be sweet, but there are times he can be downright scary. My son has gotten out of control before. He’s destroyed furniture, attacked his siblings, and tried to strike me. I know firsthand what it’s like when you have a child, who is nearly as big as you, and stronger than you, freak out and get physical. Thankfully it’s hasn’t happened too often, but when it does it’s terrifying. I love my son, but when I think of a situation like that at his school (and there have been some too), my first thought is for the OTHER kids. Granted, I do expect the school to worry about my son’s safety, and I expect them to treat him with dignity. However, if Raif is going to hurt someone and can’t be controlled, then I understand that the other children and staff need to be considered..and protected. I mean, on the flip side I would expect that the school would be concerned with Raif’s welfare if one of the other kids in his class wanted to harm him.

Is locking a child in solitary the only way? I honestly don’t know. However I do know there have been times at home when I have had no other choice but clear the room and sit alone with my son until an episode has passed. Granted, there is a far cry from allowing a child to have a “time-out” in their bedroom rather than a secluded room. But knowing how bad these things can get and what little resources schools have, I am not sure if a padded, quiet room is inappropriate. As awful as it may sound on the outside, in many instances this is what the child *needs*–not simply a punishment tool. Particularly in cases when they can hurt (and possible kill) someone, I don’t think we can just arbitrarily abolish this means of containing a violent child.

As with all things like this, there is the potential for abuse. I do think there needs to be oversight and guidelines that should be strictly adhered to. The case in question had a few issues that were red flags. The room was actually more of a “cell”–stark and the only window was covered. Apparently the child was not being directly monitored. And the child had something with him that he could use to hurt himself. Those are the areas where the school went wrong. Even when a child is being confined, their health and care should be highly regarded. Raif has a behavioral management plan and part of it includes a detail of what steps the school will take in order to keep everyone safe, including Raif. There is focus on assuring Raif doesn’t hurt others, but also that he doesn’t hurt himself. That’s what is at issue here. Did the school take all the steps to assure the child who was being secluded was kept safe, not necessarily the fact that he was put in a room in the first place.

As I mentioned, I really wanted to post something happy today, but this article struck me. Granted, my heart goes out to those parents who lost their son. It truly is a tragedy and I can only imagine their sorrow–particularly since I could easily be in their shoes. What put me off, though, was the judgmental attitude of the article. Working with these kids can be very hard. It’s easy for the outside media to point fingers and make judgments when they are not there, don’t know the situation, and in most instances have never spent any time with kids like this. It’s a whole different world with them, and in the middle of a bad episode it can be a very scary world too.

If nothing else, these instances do bring attention to the abuses in the system and the flaws. However, I do hope it’s an opportunity to fix it and make it better/safer rather than to make a decision that is rash and not well thought-out, and have it lead to a whole different set of problems.

The other day we were making Cakes in a Cup sets. Our plan was to make the gifts and then allow all each of the kids to have one for a treat. However, things went a bit off course when we found out the recipe wasn’t quite right, and we ended up having to do a bunch of testing. If you’re really interested about that, you can read more here.

As we were making our modified version, the kids were all delighting in taste-testing each batch. Raif came into the kitchen and I told him that we were having cakes in a cup and asked him if he wanted one. His face lit up. “Cake?” He immediately ran out of the room. Most of the time, that would have been it. Raif is notorious for doing that kind of thing, making a statement and then going on his way. This time, however, he came back a few minutes later and said, “Birthday Cake.”

As I have explained before, Raif has some associates which holds steadfastly to. Granted, we do have cake other than on birthdays, and he knows the difference at those times. But, on this particularly night, he wanted birthday cake. Raif then pulled out a small scented candle, which he proceeded to put on top of the small cup-cake; I suppose it was the only candle he could find. He then started gesturing for me to light it. I laughed and got a traditional birthday candle out of the drawer and put it in the cake. He sat down, readying for the ritual of song and blowing out of the candle. I called the other kids in. Before we started to sing, however, I worried. Raif does understand his birthday. Actually, it’s only been in the last few years that he’s wanted to do much participating in opening gifts and the other ritual aspects of the day. I didn’t want to confuse him, making him think that it was actually the day he turned a year older. So, after a moment, remembering the song from the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland (one of Raif’s favorite movies), I started singing, “Happy Un-Birthday to you…” All the rest of the kids joined in. It was so funny, watching Raif smile as widely sa he would were we at Chuck E. Cheese or somewhere else having a party. Once we were all done, Raif huffed in and blew out the candle…and then he left the room and didn’t come back.

Raif eventually sauntered back in about 15 minutes later. I offered him the cake, to which he made a gagging noise and ran out. Yes, that’s his typical way of telling us he doesn’t want to eat a food…something I’m sure he picked up from some cartoon.

So, it was his unbirthday, and for Raif the cake meant nothing more than a song and a chance to blow out the candle. A little bit of joy for a child who is trapped in a world where not much really appeals to him or makes him overly happy. It was nice to be able to give that to him. I just wish it was that easy all the time.