Friday, August 1, 2014

Autism Self Advocates Respond to WP Article on Abuse

The Washington Post reported a crime story on July 21st, 2014, about 22-year-old autistic twins who were found in deplorable conditions in their parents' house in Rockville, Maryland. The twins were locked up at night "in a basement room with no furniture, no working lights and a single comforter on a bare tile floor, according to Montgomery County arrest records." They were discovered when police came to the house on an unrelated matter. The parents were susbsequently charged with abuse and false imprisonment.

As is often the case, when a sensational story such as this one is widely publicized, it sets off further discussion of related and tangential issues. For example, incidents involving mass shootings by people with untreated severe mental illness led to widespread discussion and reflection about society's responsibility to people with mental illness and their families with related appeals to restrict the access to guns by people who are mentally unstable. Discussions and commentary of this type can occur without interfering with the prosecution of crimes or sympathy for the victims.

In this case, many questions emerged from the crime report: What stresses are parents under in taking care of severely autistic adults?  Do they get the help they need and can further tragedy be prevented by assuring access to such help?  Do we as a society have a responsibility for our fellow citizens, both people who have severe disabilities and their family caregivers? In this vein, The Washington Post followed up with another article on 7/26/14, "Coping with adult children's autism, parents may face 'least bad' decisions" by Dan Morse.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), a national non-profit organization that "seeks to advance the disability rights movement with regard to autism",  issued a statement on 7/29/14 beginning with, "The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is deeply concerned by both the recent case of abuse in Rockville, Maryland and the Washington Post’s reprehensible article calling the abuse of autistic adults the 'least bad' decision for families."

ASAN further states that,

"While much of our work focuses on the expansion of services and supports to people with disabilities across the lifespan, we emphatically reject and condemn any effort to present inadequate service-provision as the cause of or a mitigating factor in the abuse of people with disabilities by their families…

"People with disabilities deserve the same access to justice and the same freedom from abuse as the non-disabled population. Media narratives that sympathize with those who abuse their children set the stage for future copycat incidents, and make intervention by law enforcement and the broader community less likely. We urge a robust prosecution of John and Janice Land and encourage the Washington Post to review the appropriateness of their recent article justifying the abuse of the Land twins."

The title of The Washington Post article appears to have been inspired by a statement made by the father of another autistic adult who is quoted in the article as saying, "We can't condone their choices,…but it's possible that, in their minds, this was the least bad way to deal with this." Nowhere in the article does anyone condone the abuse of people with autism, but there is empathy with the parents, especially by other parents who are often placed in a position of trying to do more than most people would believe is humanly possible in caring for their children and then continue to do it without help or relief.

That this might be a mitigating factor in sentencing for the parents will be up to the court to decide, but empathy with the parents in this case is not the same as condoning or dismissing what they have done. As far as "future copycat incidents",  I would think that the public humiliation and shame that most people would feel in similar circumstances as this, would be enough to deter parents from doing the same and may even spur families to seek more help and advocate for more attention to factors that may lead to incidents of abuse and neglect. 

Outside of newspaper reports on this case, I know nothing about the parents. They may just be horrible people who deserve no sympathy, or they may have been at the end of their rope, pushed "over the cliff" by circumstances beyond their control, or something in between, but empathy for parents, understanding, and reflection are not equivalent to promoting criminal behavior.

See Adults with Autism "going over the cliff"

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