On September 21, Daniel was in pain. He could not speak, so he touched his head and pointed to his mouth. It was late at night at the Salem, Oregon group home, and the graveyard shift staff did immediately understand his request for medication. They asked him what was wrong and he gestured a second time, but was still not understood. He then started crying and screaming and hitting himself, continuing to point to his mouth. When a staff member once again asked him what was wrong, in his frustrated attempt to say, “quit asking me, and just give me the medicine” he bit one staff member and hit another one.
The staff called for a medic. Within minutes, before the arrival of the medics, the police arrived at the scene having heard on the scanner that someone had been assaulted. Even though the facility had been secured and the staff had managed to calm Daniel down, the police insisted on being let in.
Once inside, the police ordered Daniel to get on the ground. Daniel started screaming and crying, not understanding what was happening, or why he had to get on the ground. The police fired three stinging rounds of bean bags at Daniel. A German shepherd bit a chunk out of Daniel’s lower right leg. Finally subdued, Daniel was cuffed and escorted to the Salem Hospital.
It was 2 a.m. when Carole received the call about her son.
Carole lives in a modest house about an hour north of Salem. The blinking Christmas tree in her tiny living room leaves just enough space to maneuver a path around the couch to the kitchen. Her 14-year-old dog Jake naps in a corner, blind and oblivious. Halfway down the blue pastel walls of Carole’s kitchen, wood paneling covers the holes that Daniel has made through the years. Dainty opaque pastel curtains with hearts trim the kitchen window.
Daniel, 23, is typical among the severely autistic. He is extremely detail oriented. He notices everything. He is rigid. He does not respond well to change. He is obsessive. He is prone to anxiety, nervousness and worry. And yet, “if he’s sitting at a table drawing you would not know,” Carole said in her Quebecoise accent.
Except for about a dozen words, Daniel is non-verbal. “There are no words in his brain,” Carole explained. “There are only images.” The walls of his room in the group home are layered with recurring themes in his art: horizontal lines, helicopters, swings, kites, his father’s bookshelf, and, after September, cops.
Trim, vocal, energetic and a self-described perfectionist, Carole sees a dire need for autism awareness in Oregon, and is committed to that end via several undertakings. She has begun the proceedings for a lawsuit against the Salem police department. Why, she wonders, would the police enter a space that resembled a kindergarten classroom – where collages, kites and pictures of helicopters line the walls, and crayons, construction paper and glue cover the tables – and engage in combative behavior. In Salem, “you aim and you shoot and that’s it.” If court proceedings come to fruition, any monies attained as a result of punitive damages and pain and suffering would go directly back into the autism community.
In her “mission to make sure the police are educated,” Carole is also active in encouraging training in autism awareness for police departments. According to Dennis Debbaudt’s website “Avoiding Unfortunate Situations,” “the rate of occurrence of autism has increased in the past ten years from 2 to 6 in ten thousand persons, to 2-6 in one thousand persons [and law enforcement officers] can expect to have an increasing number of interactions with them.”
Mr. Debbaudt advises families about what they can do to reduce police interactions, provides information for law enforcement professionals, and makes him self available for workshops to law enforcement agencies and schools.
After the Portland Police Department took advantage of such a program, Carole says, they were very thankful for it. The Salem Police Department, by contrast, chose not to take the opportunity for this training – a decision that led directly to the “unfortunate situations” of September 21.
Another way in which Carole hopes to promote autism awareness is through her soon-to-be-published memoir in which she recounts her experiences going all the way back to 1987 when six-month-old Daniel was diagnosed. She will direct all profits from this book towards autism awareness and education.
After Daniel was released from the hospital for the bite wounds on his leg, the police intended to press charges against him. Daniel, however, will never have the capacity to understand what he did wrong, nor why he was in jail. Ultimately, the manager of the group home was able to convince law enforcement that any charges would be inappropriate, and that the best place for him would be back in the group home. After being instructed not to play with the staples in his leg, Daniel was permitted to return to his home.
Last week when Carole went to visit her son, Daniel was happy to see her as always. But after the briefest of greetings he shooed her out the door. “He doesn’t like to hang out with his mom, like a normal young man” of 23 years.