Lynne Soraya

Asperger's Diary

Asperger's Awareness for Assistance Professions

Abuse symptoms or autistic behavior? Could you identify the difference?

Posted Jun 22, 2008

What would you think of a child that strikes out at others, or bites, for seemingly no reason? Or one that beats their head against a wall? What would you think if a child removes their clothing at odd times? What would you think of a child that speaks non-stop about medieval torture devices? Would you assume that they were disturbed or abused, or would you look for a different underlying reason? The answer to these questions is crucial if you are in a supporting profession, such as teaching, social, or therepeutic work.

Any of the above behaviors could manifest in a child with autism or Asperger's - and in those cases, any of these can lead to unfortunate and false assumptions to be made about the child, the child's parents and/or their environment. As Professor Simon Baron-Cohen was quoted in a September, 2006 BBC news article, "...an increasing number of parents of children with Asperger's are being regarded with suspicion when their child shows behavioural problems at school."

These can cause a great deal of pain and suffering for those that they are intended to help . In a recent Detroit case (Detroit Free Press: An Autistic Teen's Ordeal), a paraprofessional reported that an autistic girl had made allegations of sexual abuse against her father through means of facilitated communication, a method by which a facilitator assists the individual type messages. Under scrutiny, the message apparently contained many factual errors and inconsistencies. However, that did not protect her 13 year old brother, also on the spectrum, from a two hour interrogation (Police video of 13-year-old boy's interrogation) regarding the alleged abuse.

The Detroit Free Press Reports:
"Legal experts say the video record of the boy's interrogation reveals numerous violations of rules that are supposed to protect minors who may have witnessed sexual abuse and to minimize false allegations of abuse. One called Brousseau's (the detective's) tactics, which included deception, threats and repeated insinuations that the boy was lying, 'reprehensible.' A therapist who treated the boy for Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism, said the detective may have misinterpreted symptoms of the boy's condition as evidence of evasion or guilt."

The charges against the parents were eventually dropped, but not before the children were removed from the home, and the father jailed for 80 days.

While I think we'd all like to think this is unusual, my experience says it is not, as I went through a similar ordeal as a child. While intellectually I did well in school, I had weird obsessions and compulsions, and didn't "get" a lot about the social world. My special interests came out early. My first really strong interests were around movies and TV shows and the characters in them. This led to odd behavior - in one of my first Halloween memories, I insisted in dressing up as my current obsession - a male superhero - unaware of how strange that may have been percieved. I was so pleased with the costume, I wore it as often as possible. I'd come home, change into my superhero suit and cape, jumping off of the backs of chairs and pretending to fly. I can't imagine what the neighbors must have thought.

The extent that I was lagging socially became evident in Kindergarten, although I think my teacher and parents felt that my troubles were, in part, the result of my being one of the youngest in my class. Toward the end of the school year, my teacher came to my parents and stated that, though she felt academically I was as proficient or more proficient than her other students, I was too "emotionally immature" to move on to First Grade, so she and my parents cooked up a scheme to protect me from ostracism - they told me and my classmates that she was going to choose a "special assistant" to stay and help her in the next school year, and staged a "selection" ceremony.

I adored my teacher, and she had a way with me, so things went well for the next year. Until I made it into First Grade. My Kindergarten teacher was very accepting, and a little eccentric herself, so she dealt well with my "differentness." On the other hand, my new teacher was flighty, nervous, and easily shocked. Whether as a result of transition and growing up, or as a reaction to her class and personality, my behavior got worse. Before long, she became convinced that my odd behaviors were proof of abuse, and reported such to the authorities.

I was blissfully unaware of what was going on, until one sunny afternoon when I was pulled from class and sent to the Principal's office. There, two people were waiting, and they said that they would like to talk to me - so they offered to take me out for ice cream. So, in the middle of a school day, I sat eating a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone in a car with two strangers who began asking me questions. I had no idea what was going on (except that I liked the ice cream, and the people seemed nice). I really didn't learn what was going on until much later.

From that point on, my parents were treated as guilty until proven innocent. Already estranged from each other, suddenly they were dealing with suspicion and blame all around. I was taken to a court appointed psychiatrist who grilled me, asking me the same questions, over and over and over. "Why do you do this?," "Why do you do that?," "Why do you say that?," "Has anyone ever done this to you?," "Has anyone ever done that to you?" And I would answer, over and over, "I don't know," "I don't know," "No," "No."

Week after week, I had to go back to this man, and the same humiliating and insinuating questions would start. I would weep and beg my parents not to make me go, but obviously, they couldn't comply without making it look like they had something to hide.

In the Detroit case the child eventually began to doubt himself under the intense questioning (Detroit Free Press: How to Destroy a Boy's Life)
"At one point in the interview, when the boy confesses doubts about his parents' innocence, Brousseau scoffs at his professed confusion:

Boy: I'm starting to believe that my dad might actually have --.

Detective: Let's stop it right there. You know what's been going on. You know it. You know firsthand what's been going on.

Boy: No! That's --

Detective: You're using this excuse, this crutch of 'I think I know what's going on, or 'I think I've got a feeling' -- Bullshit, man! You know what's going on, because you've experienced it firsthand.'"

In my case - the psychiatrist finally held a conference with all parties involved and stated that, in his opinion, I showed "signs of being abused," but since he saw no evidence of/could not prove physical abuse, I "must have been emotionally abused." While I never "cracked" under the investigators' questioning - I was tormented by the germ of a planted suspicion, just like the boy in the Detroit case. None of their insinuations were true, but if that was the case, I couldn't understand why they had been so persistent in this belief. As a child used to trusting adults' judgment, I found myself questioning my own memory, and maybe my own sanity. I was all of about seven or eight years old.

I was deeply traumatized by this experience - at the end of it all, I was deeply ashamed of what had happened, and I felt responsible. I didn't understand why I had been compelled to say and do the things that had led to the accusation, but I knew that had I been able to handle them better, my family would have been spared. Since I was so deeply embarrased and ashamed, I couldn't speak about these things. This made it difficult for me to face to the core issues and understand what caused them in the first place. Even hearing terms which were used during the investigation would make me cringe.

Once I learned about Asperger's, a great deal fell into place and much of the behaviors that so troubled my teacher were explained. My difficulties with unwritten social rules, and my obessive and compulsive tendencies led me to behaviors that a "normal" child would have picked up were inappropriate. In the end, the resolution for these inappropriate behaviors was a direct, frank discussion with my mother. She explained, on a very logical level, what I was doing wrong, how some of these things would upset those around me, and how I could modify my behavior so that I wouldn't upset people any more. (For assistance in helping kids and teenagers with Asperger's learn these unwritten rules - check out The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations - this book does in print what my mother did for me.)

At the time, Asperger's was not well know in the US, but I believe that if these professionals had been aware of Asperger's at the time, I believe the outcome would have been very different. If my behavior could have been weighed against the types of behaviors that manifest in Asperger's, maybe they wouldn't have jumped to the conclusion of abuse.

Unfortunately, as the case in Detroit shows, we still have a long way to go.

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