By Natalie Palumbo
I’m 19 years old, a freshman at Ringling College of Art & Design, and the only sibling to an older brother with low-verbal autism. Over my spring break, I came across two distressing articles one right after the other. Both outlined tragedies involving a child with autism, and both involved people acting in horrific ways towards these children. Disturbing to me as well was the locations where these incidents took place. Both are places I have frequented at one time or another.
According to the Herald-Tribune, a Sarasota County newspaper in Florida, “Court documents detailed how Melissa was ostracized from her half-siblings and allegedly abused. She was deprived of food and removed from Oak Park School. To control her, the Stoddards allegedly tied her to a board and duct-taped her mouth to keep from crying out. Melissa, who had autism, and was known for her tantrums, died Dec. 17, 2012.”
When I first came across this article, I was struck by the fact that it happened in Sarasota County close to where I attend college. This is a sobering reminder of why I will need to protect my brother in the future. Anthony could never imagine such cruelty, and I could never explain it to him.
If we are to understand the broad scope of individuals on the autism spectrum, we have to be made aware of all the possible outcomes, and not just an optimistic few. If autism is portrayed as a novelty for inspiration, then the public will believe that autism is nothing to worry about. Who wouldn’t want an exceptional child?
While I was still sick over the brutal details of Melissa Stoddard’s tortured life and death, another horrifying article surfaced from WJLA ABC 7 by Jay Korff. The headline read, “Two Maryland Teens Admit to Assaulting Boy with Autism”, and this excerpt stated the following:
“MECHANICSVILLE, Md. (WJLA) - St. Mary’s County authorities allege that 17-year-old Lauren Bush and another 15-year-old unnamed female – both students at Chopticon High School – videotaped multiple assaults they unleashed on a 16-year-old boy with autism.
Sheriff Tim Cameron says the allegations leveled against these girls are among the most disturbing he has dealt with in his career. He says that several times between December and February, the suspects preyed on the victim – assaulting him with a knife, kicking him in the groin, dragging him by the hair, coercing him to engage in a sex act too disturbing to broadcast, and even forcing him to walk on a partially frozen pond.”
The amount of disgust I felt reading about Lauren Bush and her friend is indescribable. I simply can’t conceive of such cruelty. How could anyone actually believe this behavior is acceptable? If you are capable of doing this to another person, let alone someone with autism, you have NO redeeming qualities. I was more irate knowing this abuse went on for months. Worse yet, reports said they KNEW him.
I agonize at the thought that this boy with autism could not distinguish between cruelty and friendship. More disturbing is the allegation that they coerced him into engaging in sex acts while they filmed him. One can only assume they sought to further humiliate him for their entertainment. I will never comprehend the complete lack of humanity demonstrated here. Now this boy will forever suffer the scars of their brutality in addition to his autism.
As horrible as these stories are, I believe these tragedies need more focus nationally. Most of the autism stories I see are the feel-good stories of children at the high end of the spectrum that demonstrate exceptional talent. I’ve heard the argument before. The national news promotes feel-good stories so people that donate money will feel their dollars make a difference. From my sibling perspective, I find this argument weak and frustrating. How can public concern be generated if the children presented are mostly achieving in these stories? These stories don’t communicate any sense of urgency. Autism families are struggling with the challenges of this condition, the numbers are growing, and the children are growing, too. I knew many people that thought of autism only as a verbal condition. They questioned, if not criticized, my concern for my brother. They did not know there was low-verbal autism, let alone non-verbal. They would stare at me blankly when I explained Anthony had no conversational skills, and was very echolalic with OCD.
Growing up, I endured several thoughtless people who mocked Anthony and me. Anthony’s autism acts as a shield. He is blissfully unaware when people are cruelly mocking us. However, I am always aware. Individuals so open with their thoughtless behavior make it easy for me to discern who to associate with, and who to avoid. I GET it. We’re not like you. I would never want to ACT like you, or be friends with anyone who acts like you. I can see no value in someone capable of treating anyone so abysmally.
The wave is crashing. We don’t need JUST awareness of autism anymore. We need awareness of the dangers surrounding people with autism. We need to prevent these unspeakable cruelties from happening to our loved ones.
Natalie Palumbo is Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.