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News / Clark County News

Expert: Autistic boys’ situation not as rare as one might think

Isolation, lack of support and information can have tragic consequences

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter
Published: April 14, 2011, 12:00am

Autism Society of Washington

Autism Society of Washington Southwest Chapter

The Arc of Southwest Washington

Autism Research & Resources of Oregon

Oregon Health & Science University’s Child Development and Rehabilitation Center

Autism Speaks

Two young autistic boys locked in a dark, caged room.

Though they are school-aged, they aren’t enrolled in school and wear diapers.

Unable to speak, they communicate by pointing and making grunting noises.

While an extreme situation, Neatha Lefevre, president of the Autism Society of Washington‘s professional advisory board, said the situation like one uncovered in Vancouver this week is more common than most people think.

“When parents don’t have a lot of support, they don’t have contact with a lot of people, they’re not given a lot of information, then we end up with a lot of situations like this,” Lefevre said.

Responding to a tip from Child Protective Services, Vancouver police on Tuesday discovered the two autistic boys, ages 5 and 7, confined in an apartment bedroom. A witness told police the children had been caged for at least six months, according to police reports.

The parents, 30-year-old John Eckhart and 26-year-old Alayna Higdon, were arrested and held on suspicion of second-degree criminal mistreatment and unlawful imprisonment. Their arrest Tuesday occurred the same day the Clark County Commissioners proclaimed April as Autism Awareness Month.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder where the typical neurological development of the brain does not occur. People with autism have a wide spectrum of disorders, including social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Some people with autism are highly functioning, while others cannot speak or perform daily tasks like dressing themselves or using the toilet, said Lefevre, who has been an occupational therapist specializing in treating autism since the late 1980s.

Children who lack the ability to speak, like the boys police found Tuesday, often try to communicate through their behaviors, by making grunting sounds or pointing, Lefevre said.

Situations like that allegedly found in the Vancouver apartment can occur when parents misunderstand the behaviors as acting out rather than trying to communicate, she said.

“The behaviors can be very challenging,” Lefevre said. “When (parents) do this extreme, they feel this is the safest way to keep their children. The family will choose extremes because they don’t have good information.”

Lefevre said parents of autistic children do have resources in the community, however.

The Autism Society of Washington has a Southwest Washington chapter in Vancouver. The Arc of Southwest Washington’s Parent to Parent Program links parents of children with developmental disabilities. Other organizations offer support groups, services for families and recreation programs for children with autism.

In addition, doctors often refer parents to the educational system once their children have been diagnosed, Lefevre said.

Federal law requires public schools provide all children, regardless of disabilities, with an appropriate education. And Lefevre said local school districts, in which she has worked and substituted in the past, have quality programs for kids with special needs.

“The Vancouver and Evergreen school districts have been working very diligently over the last 20 years in providing programming for individuals on the spectrum,” she said.

Throughout the years, Lefevre said research and understanding of autism has increased, but there’s still work to be done.

“I think this case highlights the need for better understanding. That’s why we have an Autism Awareness Month,” she said. “This is a very good example of why we need to get more information out there.”

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546 or marissa.harshman@columbian.com.

Columbian Health Reporter