FARGO, N.D. (AP) — When a 13-year-old Minnesota boy was banned from church after parishioners complained about his behavior, it exposed a painful truth so politically incorrect that some people feel guilty just saying it out loud: Some autistic children can be annoying and disruptive in public.
The case of Adam Race and others like him has laid bare conflicted feelings — among both parents of these children and other people — over autistic youngsters in public places. And it has stirred debate over how much consideration one side owes the other.
In the case of Adam Race, a judge agreed with a priest in Bertha, Minn., who said the 225-pound teenager was disruptive and dangerous, and upheld a restraining order barring him from services. The priest said Adam spit, wet his pants, made loud noises and nearly ran over people while bolting from the church after services.
Carol Race, Adam’s mother, said the congregation’s claims were exaggerated. But in a letter to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, JoAnn Brinda of Crystal, Minn., said the Race family should have shown more consideration for others.
“I don’t understand why families that have a challenged child who becomes loud and abusive remain at a service where all participants are quiet and contemplative most of the time,” Brinda wrote.
Susan Duclos of Peoria, Ariz., who writes the conservative Wake Up America blog, called the Race story a “horrible situation all around.”
“I have known a few people over my lifetime who have had to deal with autism with their children,” Duclos said. “It’s as frustrating for them as it is for the public.”
Similar cases involving people with autism have played out in public recently. A California man was kicked out of a health club for screaming. A North Carolina boy was taken off a plane before takeoff after having a meltdown. A South Carolina girl was ordered out of a restaurant by the town’s police chief for crying.
Syndicated radio talk show host Michael Savage added to the furor last month when he charged that doctors and drug companies are overdiagnosing autism, and said, “I’ll tell you what autism is: In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out.” Several major companies pulled their advertising from Savage’s show.
Lisa Jo Rudy, who is the mother of an autistic child and writes and consults on autism, said Savage’s words were “truly nasty and hurtful.” At the same time, Rudy said the talk show host has raised awareness of some of the frustrations of parents of autistic children and the wider public, too.
Rudy said there are times when parents should not put their children in situations where they may be disruptive. “Some of these stories really are the ones where the general public can absolutely identify with the other side of the story,” Rudy said.
Jason Goldtrap of Davenport, Fla., said too many people diagnosed with autism are out and about in public because of political correctness. Goldtrap, 40, has two nephews, ages 3 and 21, with autism, and said the older one has become so violent at times that the police have been called.
“I certainly sympathize with all the families who are in this situation,” Goldtrap said. “But when we got away from the concept of institutionalization in America, we lost an important element of trying to maintain civility. There is a place for mental institutions.”
Goldtrap added: “If it were up to me, he would be in an institution. My brother doesn’t agree, and that’s his prerogative.” He declined to identify his brother, saying, “I don’t want to start another argument.”
Autism is a disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and can include a host of complications. It varies widely in its severity. Some people are well-behaved; others are prone to outbursts or self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging.
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one out of every 150 U.S. children over the age of 8 is autistic or suffers from a related disorder. About 560,000 Americans under 21 are believed to have autism.
Many parents say that their autistic children are largely misunderstood, that they can’t help it when they act up, and that they need interaction with the public.
Barbara Coppo, whose 30-year-old son, Kenny, was banned from a Vallejo, Calif., health club for screaming, said Americans need to learn about living with autistic children.
“Autism may frighten people because so little is known about the disorder,” said Coppo, who wrote a book about her son. “The cause has not been scientifically proven and the victims often act in ways society doesn’t understand.”
However, some parents wonder how much understanding can be gained in grocery stores, churches or other public places.
Nikki Wilmoth-Williams of Rockport, Texas, said certain high-traffic areas are off-limits for her autistic 14-year-old son, Zach.
“I’m an advocate for my child, but we all have to play on the same playground,” she said. “It’s not about clearing the playground so my child can be on it.”
Wilmoth-Williams recalled one day after Sunday school class, when Zach licked several trays full of Oreo cookies set out for students. He was asked to find a different class.
“We’re talking 50 to 60 Oreos. He didn’t understand the effect it had on the entire class,” Wilmoth-Williams said. “I had to make amends. I had to volunteer.”
Rudy advises parents of autistic children to arrange forays out in public with care, which may mean five minutes in the grocery store instead of 45 minutes.
“Certainly there are cranky people in this world. If a mother glares at your child for something that’s really pretty harmless, quite honestly that’s her problem,” Rudy said. “But if your child is going to have a meltdown, I don’t think it’s in anybody’s best interest to bring the child along.”
Joe Schmitt, a Minneapolis lawyer who has often defended employers against claims they discriminated against disabled employees, said people who object to certain accommodations may be viewed as insensitive to those with autism or other disabilities.
“They usually really do care, but they have to weigh the considerations of others,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt said church officials in Minnesota knew they would be criticized for banning Adam, but took action after the two sides failed to arrive at a compromise.
“I’m not saying they were right,” Schmitt said of the church. “But I would disagree with anybody who thinks they did that casually or it wasn’t important to them.”
Sandy Boyles, whose 18-year-old son, Walter, is autistic, said that when she began attending First Reformed Church in New Brunswick, N.J., she didn’t bring him along, because in other churches he would run up and down the aisles screeching.
“She was afraid of being ostracized. I told her, ‘So what? Bring him anyway,”’ the Rev. Susan Kramer-Mills said.
Eventually, the small congregation revised its services to Walter’s liking. Worship used to start softly and build to a crescendo. Now, it starts with more noise.
“I have to be careful because sometimes he’ll do a fast movement or run,” Boyles said. “But the other members aren’t as scared as I am.”