Thursday, July 31, 2014

Adults with autism: "Going over the cliff" into adulthood with tragic results

JaLynn Prince from the Madison House Autism Foundation 

The phrase, "going over the cliff",  has become a standard description of what happens to far too many adults with autism who no longer qualify for educational services and are left with not much to do and nowhere to go. When the autism diagnosis includes intellectual disabilities, severe behavioral problems, and a need for constant care and supervision, family members are forced to adjust to an even more difficult situation than when their children were in school. Parents especially may feel a desperation that makes them wonder if this is a job they can ever retire from and what will happen when they can't do it anymore?

The Washington Post first reported a crime story on July 21, 2014, "Rockville, Md., couple charged with abusing twin 22-year-old autistic sons" by Dan Morse. Police came to the house with a search warrant on an unrelated matter and found the twins, locked in "a basement room with no furniture, no working lights and a single comforter on a bare tile floor."  The men's parents locked the twins into the room at night and had removed furniture because it was soiled. The room was locked from the outside and smelled of urine. This led to further investigation and charges of abuse and false imprisonment brought against the parents.

The crime report set off a more general discussion about the lack of services for autistic adults and the difficulty in caring for people with the most severe and complex forms of autism. The Washington Post published another article on 7/26/14, "Coping with adult children’s autism, parents may face ‘least bad’ decisions" by Dan Morse. The article included a story, not about abuse and neglect, but about another autistic young man whose parents appear to be exceptionally resourceful in figuring out how to keep him safe while living in the family home. Nevertheless, they have had to make considerable sacrifices to take care of him and still face situations that even they are not prepared for:

"...As [John's father] speaks, his 18-year-old son John starts to pace and moan in the kitchen. John typically won’t sit down for dinner until he and his parents are around the table, holding hands, his father saying the blessing. Mark walks toward the kitchen, past the locked front door, the locked door to the garage, the locked door to the basement. Those barriers, along with a tracking device John wears, the burglar alarm and the fence around the house, are designed to keep him from wandering off.

"But sometimes, even that isn’t enough. Three years ago, wearing green pajamas, John made his way to a Metro train platform four miles away just before a train came barreling into the station.

"For parents like the Bucknams, their children’s transition to adulthood is filled with gut-wrenching choices and challenges. The assistance connected with high school programs goes away. The best adult services often are at the end of long waiting lists. The pressures mount for parents to prepare for life after they’re gone…."

Later in the article a quote from Mr. Bucknam appears that is apparently the inspiration for the title of the article:

“'We can’t condone their choices,' says Mark Bucknam… 'But it’s possible that, in their minds, this was the least bad way to deal with this,' Bucknam says."

This set off a reaction from a number of disability advocacy groups condemning the paper for, in their view, offering an excuse for, rather than condemnation of, abusive treatment of people with disabilities by their parents or other caregivers. I don't see it that way, but more about that later.

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