Tag Archives: Equal Rights

The Horrifying Events that Changed A Young Man’s Life

There’s a young man, his name is Reginald.  Everyone calls him Neli.  He was on the high school wrestling team, wore a key on a chain around his neck, liked to hold three playing cards, loved his hoodie, repeated “television and movie lines ” and carried a “string that he runs through his fingers.” He was described as being shy and he liked going to his local library, which was two miles from his home.  But one day none of that mattered.  One day someone saw Neli sitting on the grass outside the library waiting for it to open.  They called the police, reporting a “suspicious male, wearing a hoodie, possibly in possession of a gun.

Neli is black.

Neli is also Autistic.

All the schools within a few miles of the library “went on lockdown.”  SWAT teams were called in.  That’s at least five schools, though one report said it was eight.  Five schools.  Eight schools.  Lock down.  SWAT team.  All because an anonymous source said they saw someone suspicious sitting outside a library.

Suspicious could mean any number of things.  Maybe it means someone who moves differently, keeps their head down, stares at their feet, doesn’t look you in the eye when you speak to them or doesn’t answer you at all when you ask them a question.  Maybe they rock back and forth as they stand or sit, maybe it means they run a piece of string through their fingers or maybe they twirl it around and around the way my daughter does.

Neli was found, frisked and was unarmed.  This is where the story should have ended.  It is at this point that the situation should have been diffused.  This is where the person who had the ability to calm things down could have, but chose not to.  Maybe a parent, teacher, someone in the community who knew him, who could have vouched for him might have stepped in.  Except the school resource officer who approached Neli and frisked him, did know him or at least had seen him at his high school.  Whatever he knew or didn’t know wasn’t helpful as Neli’s life was about to get much, much worse.  Neli was forced down over the hood of a car and told he was being taken in.

According to one report Neli cried, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” The arresting officer replied, “You don’t have to – Welcome to Stafford County.”  Then he held a gun to Neli’s head and said, “I will blow your head off, nigger.” Neli fought back and in doing so the officer was hurt.

The jury deliberated for three days, found Neli guilty of “assaulting a police officer among other charges” and recommended a sentence of ten and a half years.

Ten and a half years.

The judge disagreed and sentenced Reginald Latson to two years in prison with time served.  Except Reginald had done nothing wrong.  Except that ONE YEAR in prison for seeming “suspicious” to someone is not justice.

“Suspicious” could mean someone who utters lines from a favorite movie or says something that is considered out of context or not relevant to the conversation.  Or maybe suspicious means “not white” and when combined with any of these other things this results in people imagining there’s a weapon as well.  Or maybe not being white is all it takes.  But one thing is certain, being viewed “suspicious” and black and Autistic in today’s world can get you locked up, sentenced by a jury of your peers to ten and a half years, put in solitary confinement for most of your time in prison, and when you’re broken, when you give up the will to live and try to kill yourself, it’s enough reason to put you in a straight jacket, restrain you for hours, hours in a chair, and then slap you with another charge to make sure you never get out of prison.

The Bazelon Center wrote before sentencing last week:

 This counterproductive and inhumane cycle continues with charges Latson is scheduled to face this week stemming from an altercation with a prison guard that occurred when he was being moved to a crisis cell while in psychiatric crisis and suicidal.  There was no serious injury to anyone in this incident other than Latson, who was shot with a Taser and bound for hours in a restraint chair.  Nonetheless, a new felony prosecution was initiated.

As I write this Neli has been sentenced to another six months in prison.  This is beyond unacceptable.  Neli should never have been charged to begin with.  None of this should have happened.  But it did.

A massive number of people have been working hard to gain Neli’s release.  At this moment it could not be easier to do something that could help.  If you only have a moment, sign this petition that my friend Kerima Cevik of the blog Intersected started.

Please.  It literally takes less than 60 seconds to add your signature to this petition.

Grant a pardon to Reginald Cornelius “Neli” Latson

If you have more time, please contact the Governor’s office directly Phone: 804-786-2211; via email by clicking here or on Twitter @GovernorVA and add your voice to thousands of others.

Neli Latson before his arrest

Neli Latson before his arrest

On Being Judgmental

The other day a parent felt I was being judgmental because of my Demanding Speech post.  I felt terrible that was her take away from the post, but I also understood why she felt that way.  One walks a fine line when criticizing current therapies or suggesting we do things differently while not sounding preachy or judgmental to those who feel the very thing I’m criticizing has helped their child. And I have to admit here that in writing the previous sentence I initially wrote, “suggesting we do things better for the sake of our kids…” which, yeah…  that sounds judgmental and yet…

So how do we protest, how do we talk about things, things we feel outrage about, things we believe are wrong without sounding like all those “autism experts” I so often criticize here on this very blog?

And the only answer I have, for myself and anyone else, is – stay open to other points of view, be willing to listen and learn.  But how do I speak my truth while understanding that what I say may upset some?  I don’t think it’s possible and I’m okay with that.  Not everyone is going to agree with me.  That’s okay.  I don’t agree with the vast majority!  But what I won’t do is stop talking about all of this.  I won’t.  And while I talk about all of this, people comment and email and reach out and give me feedback and many times after reading what they’ve written I rethink my position. I change, I grow, I learn.  All of this is a process, and by that very fact it means that what I believe, is in a state of constant flux, there’s movement, more to learn, more to understand.

I know what it feels like to feel another person is judging me.  It isn’t a great feeling.  And it doesn’t help me understand the other person’s point of view and it definitely doesn’t make me feel particularly inclined to stick around to hear what else they might have to say.  In fact, when I believe someone is judging me, my visceral response is to retreat or fight back.  But, if I can let go of that initial desire to flee, I often learn, even if it is a lesson in verifying what I already thought.  The most important thing I can do is not preach, not convince, not judge, but speak honestly about my experience.  If that resonates with others, great, if it makes people angry, so be it, if it alienates some, okay, but this blog is about our experience, mine, Emma’s and Richard’s.  I don’t speak for anyone but myself.  I don’t pretend to know what Emma’s experience is, even when she writes about it here.  The best I can do is interpret it, respond to her words, talk about what it means to me and ask more questions, but that’s it.  The same goes for my husband, I don’t and cannot speak for him.

And in the end, that’s all any of us can do.  I hold deep convictions about much of what I see going on with autism.  I object to most of what is commonly believed to be the “truth”.  Yet I also know I continue to get things wrong.  I have tremendous humility when it comes to all of this.  I am constantly learning.  People, usually Autistic people, are generous enough to share with me their experience of things and it changes my thinking.  I listen. I revise.  I tweak my constantly shifting beliefs.  I ask questions.  I continue to learn more, I realize how I haven’t gone far enough in my thinking.  I  dig deeper.

But when I am in a room where a teenage boy is being watched like he is a prisoner while eating his lunch, pelted with questions he cannot easily answer by speaking, his favorite food, in this case, rice, withheld until he finishes some other food, again in this particular case fresh, cut up fruit, overseen by someone else, whose only real power is that they can speak easily while the boy cannot, spoken to with barely concealed impatience and irritation, I’ve got a problem with that.  When I see a group of people being treated as unequal, with less respect simply because their neurology is in the minority, I feel physically ill.  When someone who cannot communicate through spoken language is treated as incompetent I feel sick.  When people speak to my daughter or speak about her, often in front of her, with exasperation, irritation, barely disguised annoyance, I feel enraged.  When a human being is treated with condescension by another human being simply because that person is deemed less intelligent regardless of whether this is true or not, I am motivated to speak out.

This is personal, it isn’t just some issue I feel strongly about.  Do I feel judgmental?  Sometimes, but more often I feel  sad.

What follows are a few photos that make me happy…

Henry and me laughing as Emma tries to convince Henry that the water isn't freezing cold

Henry and I laughing as Emma tries to convince Henry that the water isn’t freezing cold

My friend Ibby

My beautiful friend Ibby.  Photo taken by Emma

One of my favorite photos of Emma as a baby, because even then her personality shines!

One of my favorite photos of Emma as a baby, because even then her personality shines!

Larry Bissonette takes Emma's photograph

Larry Bissonette takes Emma’s photograph

Autism and Human Rights

Peyton Goddard gave the keynote address at the 2013 TASH Conference in Chicago on December 11th, 2013.

You can watch, hear and read a transcript of her speech ‘here‘.  Peyton does not speak, but instead types to communicate.  I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the TASH Conference and hear her speech.

“Understated and devalued, I was segregated and secluded, walled-in for controlling decades, and repeatedly traumatized by bullying abusers.”

Peyton describes her existence prior to learning how to communicate through typing.

“I’m less. I’m freak. I’m throwaway trash. Daily, for decades, I try but cannot be the person you want me to be.”

“Your answer was to fix me, to change me to be what you feared not. To cure me of being ME. I reply that YOU were less than I needed.”

Read that again – “I reply that YOU were less than I needed.”

“Segregation is the beast whose bite cheats us all. The isolation of people different renders you and me strangers. Reality is that you are me and I am you.”

At the crux of any prejudice is the idea that “I” am different, separate and, ultimately “superior”.  To live with this delusion, we must keep ourselves apart from those we believe “inferior”.  If we live together, in a world that embraces all humans, we lose our superior/inferior status.  This is the world I strive and hope for.  This is the world I want my children to inhabit.

*For more of Peyton’s wisdom, read her book, I am intelligent.  I interviewed Peyton and Dianne for the Huffington Post.  You can read that interview ‘here‘.

Peyton and Dianne Goddard ~ TASH 2013

Peyton and Dianne Goddard ~ TASH 2013

“People Have to Listen”

Stop Hurting Kids is a campaign to “end restraint and seclusion abuse in schools.”  Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories is a 27 minute film by documentary filmmaker, Dan Habib.   Creator of Including Samuel and Who Cares About Kelsey?  Dan Habib is “Filmmaker in Residence at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.”  The transcript of Restraint and Seclusion is available here.

For those of you who do not have the time or inclination to watch the film, here are a few quotes from it, which I hope will serve to pique your interest enough to watch the film in its entirety.  Because this is happening all around us, because this could be one of our children, because we, as a society, must become aware of what is going on, because without awareness and protest this will continue, because prejudice and brutality are not the answer, because as Barb Rentenbach continues to remind us, I might be you, because as my daughter, Emma has said on numerous occasions, “People have to listen.  Mommy, people do not listen to Emma.”

“The National Disability Rights Network reported that in recent years, the misuse of restraint and seclusion has resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries.”

Peyton Goddard – “It was bruted power jired by purses wrongfully called teachers trying to beat I. This war wasted my rest. The sweet in I evaporated out.”

Helena – “He slammed me up against the wall, arm barred me across the throat and lifted up so I couldn’t breathe. And then whispered, “How am I supposed to talk to you nice and slow so you can understand?”

Wil Beaudoin – “One particular day we went to see my son and we were going to give him a haircut. So, we took off his shirt and he was covered with bruises and abrasions, fifteen to twenty on his body…everywhere.”

Peyton Goddard – “Fright opted I timid, silent and unable to fight back. Telling myself sweet lies that the tortures did not matter.”

Brianna – “I did not have a speech-generating device. Good evaluation would have made that happen. I tried to tell my mother. She did not understand me or she thought the teachers knew everything.” 

Peyton Goddard – “Try to see potent powerful potentials in each pierced person. There you will free their gifts. There I can feel I’m treasured. There nary I’m fret. I’m ready. Are you? Try please.”

Larry Bissonnette, Peyton Goddard and Tracy Thresher at TASH

TASH 6

 

But What About Alex?

Another Autistic child has died… stabbed… multiple times, in the chest, by his mother. Alex Spourdalakis was 14 years old.

The mother of a 14-year-old with severe autism who was found stabbed to death…” ~ Daily Herald.com

But what about Alex?

The mother of a 14-year-old with severe autism…” ~ Pantagraph.com

But what about Alex?

First degree murder charges have been filed against Dorothy Spourdalakis, the mother of a teen with severe autism…” ~ abclocal.go.com

But what about Alex?

A young man. Stabbed. Not once. Multiple times.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.” The United States Declaration of Independence – 1776

But what about Alex?

In the 237 years since those words were first written we have failed miserably at putting this idea into practice. All human life is not treated as equal; apparently it is not “self-evident”. We continue to live in a world where equality is still desperately sought by a great many.

For those who are born unable to speak and Autistic, those among us, who are given the label “severe”, their lives matter even less. We not only think of ourselves, (those of us who are able to speak and whose neurology is not Autistic) as superior, our lives deemed more worthwhile, but we are reminded of our superiority every single day of our existence, just as those who are born unlike us are told in myriad ways how they are not.

Autistic people, particularly those with multiple physical challenges, are spoken of as “burdens” to society, they are talked about as though none who are Autistic are capable of understanding the words being used to describe them. They are not consulted. They are not listened to. For the most part they are being ignored. And those who are raising their voices in protest, who dare to speak out against the crimes committed against them, they are met with resistance, anger, indignation. They are often ridiculed, dismissed, silenced or simply ignored.

When a parent murders their child, we cringe in horror. When that child is disabled we sympathize. The media brings in psychologists to help us understand. We dissect the child’s history, we look for clues, what could have provoked a parent to do such a thing? Sometimes we conclude the parent was crazy and unfit, but not before we make sure there was nothing unusual about the child. As we rally around, trying to distance or identify with the parent, Alex and those like him are all but forgotten. His life is seen as an example of what some must endure. His life becomes an illustration of that burden on society that everyone wishes would just go away.

But what about Alex?

What about what Alex had to endure? What about what it must have been like to live his life for those 14 years? Where are the news articles discussing who this young man was? What did he love? What were his passions? What made him happy? What must it be like to not be able to speak? Did he communicate through typing?  Did he read and write and if so what did he like to read?   What was his favorite subject?  Did he love music?   Did he like animals?  Was there something special he enjoyed doing?

What about Alex?

Alex

 

“Autistic People Are…”

*Following on the heels of the tremendously successful “Autistic people should…” flash blog last Saturday, today’s flash blog has bloggers adding their thoughts to “Autistic people are…”

Autistic people are…   

human beings.  

with the same rights as anyone else.  

equal.  

as diverse as those who are not Autistic.  

Autistic people are.  

Welcome to the human race.  

Now let’s start treating them as such.

For some history and the flash blog link, click ‘here‘.

As a direct result of last Saturday’s flash blog and thanks to the hard work by Yes, That Too, Unstrangemind and many other Autistic bloggers, this happened – Google Changes Policy for Autism 

While those policies have not yet gone into effect, it is hopeful news and a wonderful first step.

Henry Makes Waves & Everyone’s An “Expert”

Yesterday the interview (published on Huffington Post, click ‘here‘) with Henry, the 13-year old non-speaking Autistic boy, son, brother, friend, student and all around amazing kid who has been denied enrollment to the public school across the street from his house went viral.  At the moment it has 152 comments and over 1,000 people have “liked” it, with almost 400 people sharing it on Facebook.  The comments began pouring in yesterday afternoon.  A few were particularly troubling for a couple of reasons.  The first being that a completely uninformed person(s) made broad sweeping generalizations about autism while bolstering their opinions with statements like this:  “and then there are the non verbal Autistic who need constant care.  One can’t tell if they understand language, but they can’t speak for some reason. I do know this as a fact from the Autistic that I’ve worked with in my youth.”  Another commenter suggested, “Maybe he should consider speaking …..If he wants to go to that school so badly…”  And yet another said something about how Autistic kids “drag” the rest of the students down.  All of these comments were uninformed, but the thing that was actually frightening  was when another commenter then referred to the first commenter as an “expert”.

So I lost it.  Completely.  Utterly.  Lost.  It.  Heart racing, hands shaking, head pounding, throat constricted, feeling nauseous, lost it…  Which is how many who are marginalized and live with prejudice, feel all the time.  That feeling of terror that their lives are threatened and in real danger as a result of incredible ignorance.  I should have walked away.  I should have done some breathing exercises.  I should have meditated.  But I didn’t.  Instead I reached out with words and hit back.  I used words to hurt.  I used words to wound.  I didn’t ask questions.  I didn’t wait for more information.  And here’s the thing, I don’t know that I was wrong to do so.  I feel ambivalent.  I feel I should regret my actions more than I do.

I responded with this: “…the degree to which you misunderstand Autism is actually more than frightening, it is terrifying. That you also worked with this population says more about the tragic state of the place you worked and their hiring policies, not to mention their training, which appears to be none, than your profound ignorance.”  To which he responded, “I wasn’t hired to do anything. The camp/school had normal and special kids and they had that one Autistic boy. I was nine. I wasn’t hired.”

People in the comment thread were describing a man as an “expert” who claimed knowledge of autism because he met an Autistic boy when he was nine years old.  At camp.  Nine.  And I thought of Joe Scarborough and his comment about the Aurora shooter.  I thought of Simon Baron-Cohen who actually is something of an “expert” and yet I completely disagree with his conclusions.  I thought of all the doctors, researchers, neurologists and “autism specialists” I’ve met, spoken with and consulted over the years, many of whom I do not agree with and some whom I do.  But the point is, so much of this is up for grabs.  There is a great deal of information out there that all of us have access to, but how do we know what is correct?  We’ve got doctors drawing conclusions that seem illogical and even irresponsible, while others whom we might agree with.  There are some very smart people out there working hard, publishing their work, making informed opinions, but how do we know who to believe?

I don’t.  What I do know is that anyone I read or hear I try (usually) to find out more about.  Who is this person?  What are their credentials?  What is their hands on experience?  And I get a second opinion from those who are autistic.  There are a number of people, all Autistic whom I particularly respect (this is by no means a comprehensive list and in no particular order, just thinking off the top of my head; please feel free to share anyone else I may have forgotten) Judy Endow, Lynne Soraya, Emily Willingham, Elizabeth J. Grace and Michelle Dawson.

A commenter on this blog wrote a hilarious comment about “Dr. Mom”, “Nurse Mom” and “Psych Mom”.  It was not only very funny, it was relevant to all of this. Who do we believe?  Hopefully not the guy who states they “know this for a fact” as compelling as the man might be for some.  And I’ll just add this; don’t believe me either.  I’m a mom.  I’m a writer.  I’m an artist.  I have opinions.  Sometimes I have really strong opinions, opinions that I think are right.  But I also know that over the years as I learn more, I no longer agree with many of the opinions I held a year ago, two years ago, three years ago.  My opinions change.  All I know is that I want to keep learning.  I want and try to keep my mind open.  Sometimes it’s really hard.  Sometimes I feel tremendous rage.  I don’t learn when I’m that angry.  But hopefully I calm down enough that I can go back to learning.

Let the learning continue!