Who's crazy? 

Recalling my summer with severely autistic children

I hope you read Alyssa Abkowitz's cover story on autism two weeks ago. There is a fascinating dialogue in the comments section at the end of the online version of the story.

Alyssa's story reminded me of one of the darkest experiences of my own life. In the summer of my freshman year of college, 30-some years ago, I worked as an attendant in the children's unit of a state mental health hospital in Virginia.

Some days, I was assigned to the observation ward and other days to the ward for schizophrenic adolescents. But most days, I was directed to the gloomy basement where children with severe autism were warehoused. And I do mean "warehoused." There were no therapeutic services for these children.

I remember several of the kids more clearly than I remember any of my classmates of the time. There was JT, who spent his days rocking back and forth on the floor. At intervals he screamed, "Good ol' Mighty Mouse!" and then recited verbatim the scripts of cartoons that his father, an occasional visitor, said he'd watched before being institutionalized. A broad swath of the back of JT's head was bald from rolling his head side to side all the time.

There was Judy. She also rocked, but from foot to foot, screaming, "Kill the turtle, cut his head off!" Her right hand was covered with scars from biting herself.

Most days, I sat at the office window of the day porch where the older boys were locked. They were naked and spent the day splashing in their urine and slinging their shit. My job, when they got sufficiently filthy, was to bathe them, usually in groups of three. I washed the feces and urine off them and then, as I toweled them, they threw back their heads like baby birds. Shit boiled out of their mouths.

"Why don't the kids have anything to play with?" I asked a nurse one day.

"Policy. They just tear toys up," she replied. "It creates more work for us."

"Then it's hard to blame them for playing with their shit," I thought, but remained silent.

One day, I brought some crayons and drawing paper to the unit. I handed them to Judy. She sat on the floor and produced a perfect drawing of a dog. I pointed at a lamp; she drew it with photographic exactitude.

Excited, I took the drawings to the nurse in charge. She looked at them and lectured me for "violating policy." She took the rest of the paper and crayons to a locked closet that turned out to be full of unused toys. There was no policy.

As the summer wore on, something frightening became apparent to me. It was already clear that staff throughout the building were mainly interested in maintaining control. But, as they eliminated normal stimulation from the children's lives, it wasn't just the kids' behavior that became stranger and stranger. So did the staff's. I wondered how I was being affected. I cried a lot in my dorm room. I painted birds on my walls.

In the observation ward, three or four staffers were fired for beating an adolescent. He had disappeared, causing a panic, and turned out to be hiding under his bed. After the enraged staff beat him, the boy cut himself all over his body with a seashell.

On the autism ward, nothing so dramatic happened. But one day my supervisor announced that it was time for me to meet her friend. I looked around. She put some food in a saucer, slid it into a corner and told me to wait. An enormous rat waddled out of the dark to nibble the food.

I daily begged the nurse to let me take the children outside, three at a time, to the playground. They had not been permitted to go out all summer. Finally, one day, which turned out to be my last day there, she relented.

The sunlight over-excited the three kids. They yelled and spun around. One took off running toward the woods that backed up to the fenceless playground. I ran after him and, just inside the woods, I heard him cooing. I found him under a tree with his arms wrapped around the legs of a corpse hanging by its neck from a rope.

I have no memory of the rest of that day. I flew back to Atlanta soon afterward, and it was many months before I could take a step without fearing I would fall into the dark world of those abandoned, beautiful children, not so much younger than I had been at the time. I'm glad things have changed.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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