Experts: Locks not helpful for autistic kids

Many local resources exist for parents who feel at loss for answers

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 
photoAlayna Higdon reacts Tuesday when a Clark County jury acquitted her and John Eckhart of unlawful imprisonment in connection with their practice of locking Eckhart's two autistic sons in a bedroom secured with a cage-like door.

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On the Web

Learn more about autism:n Autism Society of Washington: http://www.autismsocietyofwa.org

• Autism Society of Washington Southwest Chapter: http://www.autismsocietyofwa.org/asw-southwest

• The Arc of Southwest Washington: http://www.arcswwa.org

• Autism Speaks: http://www.autismspeaks.org/

• Washington Autism Alliance & Advocacy: http://www.washingtonautism advocacy.org/For autism behavioral therapy in Southwest Washington:n Autism Behavioral Consulting: http://www.autismabc.org

In light of a jury's decision to acquit a Vancouver couple of unlawful imprisonment for keeping two autistic boys behind a locked gate, autism experts have weighed in to say that restraint is not the best solution for special needs children -- but is a common one.

There are resources for parents of severely autistic children, when it reaches the point that the children are harming themselves or others, said Arzu Forough, chief executive officer of Washington Autism Alliance & Advocacy. Forough, a mother of two autistic children, said she strongly supports intensive behavioral therapy to teach the children ways to communicate.

"The child needs to be taught to self-advocate about what's prompting these behaviors," Forough said.

John Eckhart and Alayna Higdon presented a defense that the boys, ages 5 and 7, were locked up in the bedroom for fear they would wander from the apartment at night, injure themselves and eat inedible objects. Two experts, a psychologist and speech therapist, supported this defense.

Autism is a disorder where the typical

neurological development of the brain does not occur. People with autism have social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Experts say many schools and homes rely on restraint and seclusion to handle autistic children. But that's certainly not an ideal scenario, they said.

"Imagine being locked up when you're already so frustrated," Forough said. "It's horrible."

Neatha Lefevre, president of Autism Society of Washington, said she understands how Higdon and Eckhart would want to child-proof the apartment.

"I have worked with parents who have put covering over windows and put locks on the doors at night," Lefevre said. "I do know parents who have had to resort to those things. You would take the same precautions as you would a toddler."

Still, both Lefevre and Forough said they objected to keeping the boys in a bedroom for prolonged periods of time, which was alleged by the prosecution. Since communication is one of their biggest barriers, autistic children are often self-injurious out of frustration that they can't communicate when they're upset, Furough said.

"My issue is that there was no communication system. They didn't have a way to communicate," Lefevre said. "There was no scheduling on when they were taken out. There appeared to be limited times to interact with the family."

Testimony at trial differed on how the long the boys were in the room. Higdon's 10-year-old son testified the boys were in the room much of the day and during meals; both defendants and extended family members testified the boys were frequently let out for meals, games, bath and special occasions.

The dispute over how long the boys were in the room was among the main reasons juror Michael Simonson said he voted to acquit the couple.

"They couldn't prove timetables," Simonson said. "I'm all for kids having a good environment. But this was a unique situation. ... As far as what the charges pertained to, there was no basis."

Gary Adams, a Portland psychologist who testified for the defense, said his impression was that the boys were only kept in the room when Higdon and Eckhart were tending to their newborn son and doing other chores.

"If it would have been excessive, I wouldn't have taken the case," Adams said.

Adams said he interviewed Eckhart, who told him that he took his sons out of school after one of the boys became agitated about having to wear a helmet. When officials presented the father with pamphlets about autism resources, Eckhart didn't know what to do because he couldn't read them, Adams said. The father testified at trial that he is illiterate, has an eighth-grade education and was in special education courses. He also thought he didn't have the income to pay for the resources for his sons.

"He finally just said, 'I don't have alternatives,'" Adams said.

Forough said it is common for lower income people to struggle with finding resources, and her organization has worked to see Medicaid cover autism behavioral therapy.

Proper treatment "really starts with the place where they were diagnosed," she said. "Whoever diagnosed these children did a disservice" to the family.

With applied behavior analysis therapy, Forough said autistic children who are nonverbal are taught other ways to communicate, such as using sign language and pictures and devices, such as iPads.

She said she's seen a number of autistic children benefit from this type of behavioral therapy, and she wants more parents to know about the resources.

About the Higdon and Eckhart case, Furough said: "I hope some good comes out of it."

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts;www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker;laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.