Sunday, August 26, 2012

Autism, Mutations, and Hot Sauce

Since Alex was diagnosed with autism several years ago, I have followed autism research and reports in the news faithfully. This week, two news stories reported in the media caught my attention, but for different reasons. One story proposed a new possible cause of autism based upon research in Iceland:  older fathers are more likely to produce children with autism. [A link to this news report can be accessed by clicking here.] The researchers noted that DNA mutations occur over time; therefore, older fathers may produce sperm with genetic flaws that can cause autism and schizophrenia. One scientist suggested that the increase in autism rates could be a result of more men having children later in life, thereby passing along their defective genetic material. Since mothers have long been the targets of autism causation, having fathers blamed this round should come as a relief. From Bruno Bettelheim’s ridiculous theory that cold, unfeeling “refrigerator” mothers were to blame for their children with autism having difficulties with social interaction to more recent studies that accuse mothers of children with autism of not taking their prenatal vitamins or wearing nail polish or whatever else these witch hunts can find, we moms apparently got what we deserved when our children were diagnosed with autism. When Alex was born, Ed had recently turned 40; according to the research, he may have had as many as 65 mutations. I guess that takes me off the hook. However, I’m still not buying that genetics primarily determine autism; I believe—as many autism parents do—that environmental factors play a much greater role in autism than many in the medical field want to admit.

While the new report blaming autism fathers made me shake my head in disbelief, another story about a teacher being mean to a child with autism infuriated me. When Alex was in preschool, his teacher decided to keep him restrained in a seat belt chair instead of telling him to sit down because it was “easier.” This led to our decision to home school him, especially since she believed her actions were justified. Stories of teachers bullying children with autism are far too common, and some people simply have no business working with these kids, as evidenced by a news story out of Kissimmee, Florida, this week. [To read this news story, click here.]

Apparently, teacher Lillian Gomez decided that the best way to make her kindergarten student with autism stop eating crayons was to put hot sauce on them. Clearly, she has no concept of sensory issues that children with autism have, such as the need for oral stimulation that leads them to chew on objects. I know this because Alex chewed on his shirt collars, toys, and anything else he could get his hands and teeth on. We solved this problem by providing him with a “chewy,” rubber therapy tubing that he could gnaw on instead of objects to satisfy his need to chew. Not only did Ms. Gomez put hot sauce on this child’s crayons, she clearly premeditated her actions by soaking them for days in the hot sauce. Obviously, this was not a knee-jerk reaction by an overly stressed teacher; she knew what she was doing.

Wisely, her school district fired her last February for her cruel and unprofessional behavior. Since then, she has been trying to get her job back while her lawyer claimed that she was trying to help her student. He is quoted as saying, "I think she made a bad judgment in the way she went about it," he said. "But her purpose was good." Since when is using a painful aversive, such as hot sauce especially on a child who is likely hypersensitive to such a potential sensory overload stimulus, a good thing? Unfortunately, a judge sympathized with this teacher, condoning her bad behavior, and recommended the school district rehire her. Ultimately, the decision to reinstate her lies in the hands of the school board, whom I hope consider how they would feel if she treated their children the same way before they make their decision about allowing her to work with children again, especially children with special needs, who should be protected, instead of punished for behavior they cannot help.

To add insult to injury, a blog entry on The Stir this week also supported the teacher’s actions. [To read this entry, click here.] In her article “Teacher Who Soaked Autistic Boy's Crayons in Hot Sauce Shouldn't Be Fired,” Julie Ryan Evans asserts that the teacher made a bad choice but doesn’t think she should lose her job. Ms. Evans minimizes the effects of the teacher’s actions upon her student, asserting, “Assuming she just soaked the crayons so that the boy would get a little spicy reminder to keep them out of his mouth, however, doesn't outrage me so much. Were they model teaching practices? Certainly not, but as far as I can tell neither were done out of anything but good intentions.” A “little spicy reminder”? “Good intentions”? Give me a break! I wonder how Ms. Evans would feel if a teacher deliberately put hot sauce on her child’s crayons. Perhaps as an autism mom, I’m overly protective; we moms of children who cannot speak for themselves must speak for them. Certainly, working with children with autism requires understanding and patience that few possess. Those who cannot handle the stress should not be working with these children, and I’d be happy to give them a “little spicy reminder” if they need to know what kinds of teaching methods are not helpful. Our kids with autism deserve much better than teachers like Lillian Gomez, and school districts must protect special needs children from those who have no business teaching them.

“The Lord says, "I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name.” Psalm 91:14


K. C. said...

I find it reprehensible that anyone would consider giving that woman her job back. What she did was no different from smacking a child in the mouth for talking too much. I don't understand how anyone would think that was an acceptable means of redirecting a child.

Pam Byrne said...

Hi K.C.,
I'm appalled that any teacher would bully a child, but those who are cruel to special needs children are especially awful. Unfortunately, there are not enough good special education teachers to meet the needs of this tsunami of autism. :(
Take care,