Autistic kids ostracized from school, church

Imagine being told that you and your family are no longer welcome at church. Or that your son’s kindergarten classmates have taken a vote to banish him from class.

Two families– one in Minnesota and one in Florida– faced those unbelievable scenarios recently because they have an autistic child. In both cases, the boys’ behavior was cited as a reason to ostracize them.

In the Minnesota case, the Church of St. Joseph in Bertha filed a restraining order against 13-year-old Adam Races. Should he and his family try to attend Mass, they will be arrested:

In a statement, Father Dan Walz said he filed the petition as a last resort out of “a growing concern for the safety of parishioners”.

Adam is severely autistic. He is home-schooled, and has attended St. Joseph’s his whole life. He is also more than six feet tall and weighs more than 235 pounds.

In court documents, Father Walz said Adam’s growing size makes it harder for his parents to manage his behavior during mass. Father Walz said Adam struck a child, and bolts unexpectedly from church nearly knocking people down, including elderly people.

Adam’s mom tells a different story:

Carol Races said those allegations are either exaggerated or false. She said Adam is not angry or violent, he has never spit in church, and that on rare occasions, he has been incontinent. /snip

Carol said sometimes Adam is noisy and must be restrained during mass, but she said her family always sits in back and leaves church a few minutes early.

In the Florida case, it gets even worse. In some twisted version of “Kindergarten Survivor,” 5-year-old Alex Barton was literally subjected to a tribal council and “voted out” by his classmates…at the behest of his teacher:

After each classmate was allowed to say what they didn’t like about Barton’s 5-year-old son, Alex, his Morningside Elementary teacher Wendy Portillo said they were going to take a vote, Barton said.

By a 14 to 2 margin, the students voted Alex — who is in the process of being diagnosed with autism — out of the class.

Melissa Barton filed a complaint with Morningside’s school resource officer, who investigated the matter, Port St. Lucie Department spokeswoman Michelle Steele said. But the state attorney’s office concluded the matter did not meet the criteria for emotional child abuse, so no criminal charges will be filed, Steele said.

Following a public outcry, district officials have reassigned the teacher to an office job while an investigation is conducted. I hope she’s summarily fired.

As autism rates continue to skyrocket, it’s no surprise that teachers are being challenged like never before. My cousin is a rookie teacher with five autistic students in her 5th grade class, and she has told me that those students require more attention, sometimes to the detriment of the other pupils. But the answer is more staffing and support, not ganging up on a 5-year-old and kicking him out of kindergarten.

I don’t understand where the priest’s and teacher’s compassion went. But thinking of those two kindergarteners who fought the mob mentality and voted to keep Alex in class gives me hope.

What do you think? Did the church have the right to file a restraining order? How should the teacher have handled that situation? And have you or anyone you know ever faced a situation like this?


43 thoughts on “Autistic kids ostracized from school, church

  1. sad and angry

    The church story just makes me sad.  We watched “My Left Foot” again the other night and the way Christy Brown’s community cared for him and included him was the best part.  I would want that for the guy and his church community.  It’s sad that the other parishioners are afraid at church.  His mom talks about how the church didn’t make the proper accommodations.  I wonder what she wanted for him and why it didn’t work out.  I would think a sermon on loving each other would have helped.  Isn’t there a Bible story about lovingly including someone different?

    I also wonder why he doesn’t wear Depends if urination is a frequent problem.

    The kindergarten story just makes me angry.  The teacher knew he was in the process of being assessed and had been in meetings where his challenges were described.  How about helping him out?  It was wrong for the student who was singled out and also wrong for each student who had to vote.  I hope they are not haunted by that later.

    I can’t imagine why they would let this woman continue teaching young children.  It seems to me that she just doesn’t get it.

    • had an experience

      as a 16 year old- my golf coach had a secret “what should we do about Melissa” meeting with the team. I played well, unless I was up in the top four, when I would tank. Coach wondered if I needed some “tough love” to improve and wanted to get the team’s opinion. Was I doing it on purpose (no, added pressure made me play horribly)? What did they think? She wanted the team to collectively decide.

      Are you kidding me? I threw a fit when one of my BFF who was on the team (quiet girl, sat there appalled) told me at the next match why everyone was so weird. I walked off the course, called my mother, told my coach she could go to hell, mom came, SHE told coach she could go to hell and I went to the car while mom screamed some more- coach came out, personally apologized in front of the team and the principal asked me back on the team and told me personally that it would not be tolerated for a coach to behave that way. 16. High School. Inappropriate.

      This? Is sick. The woman is sick. There is something WRONG WITH HER BRAIN to think that kindergarteners should have a SAY in a child’s participation!  

  2. side

    Adam struck a child during mass, nearly knocks elderly parishioners over when he hastily exits the church, spits and sometimes urinates in church and fights when he is being restrained…

    Adam’s parents have to sit on him and sometimes tie his hands and feet to get control of him, Walz wrote.

    Carol Race has an answer to each complaint.

    She said her son makes spitting faces but doesn’t spit and acknowledged he has occasional problems with incontinence. She says that she and her husband sit on Adam because their weight calms him down, which is why he pulled the girl onto him.

    I don’t think the church should be blamed; it sounds like Adam had become quite disruptive and even possibly dangerous.

    I do wish that this hadn’t escalated to the point of the church having to go get a restraining order.  I don’t know if this was offered, but another solution could have been found, like holding private masses for Adam and his family.

    • they did

      From this it seems the parish did try to offer alternatives and they were refused:

      Walz said the church “explored and offered many options for accommodations that would assist the family while protecting the safety of parishioners. The family refused those offers of accommodation.”

      • I wonder

        if the family is in denial about the extent of the disruption?  That he is over 6 ft. tall and hard to manage is indeed problematic. It’s too bad they couldn’t reach a better, more amicable solution.

        The effing kindergarten teacher needs to be fired tout suite . WTF? Wrong, wrong, wrong on so many levels. Kudos to the 2 kids who didn’t vote  him off and I hope the other 14 get some counseling over this. Ugh.

        • ITA

          My first thought when hearing about the kindergarten story was that I’d be so proud of those two kids who voted no.  But firing is not enough for the teacher, who might just get another job elsewhere.  There must be a stronger sanction to protect children from abusive teachers.

      • hmmmm

        if what the priest alleges is true, then I think it is better for everyone not to have Adam at Mass.

        At my mother’s church, they have a nursery and childcare during service.  IF you want to take your child into the regular service, you surely may, but they also provide a room off to a side with a HUGE TV that lets yu sit in private (or at least only with another family with someone disruptive) so you can do service without disrupting the other two thousand people.

        Seems like that might be an idea as well?

    • many possible accomodations

      I wrote a story about this Orange County family that has taken in more than 100 high-needs foster kids over the years. They have also adopted 8 of them.

      One of the children was shaken as a baby; he is now blind, mute and profoundly retarded. He can be violent and physically unpredictable. Their church has set up a small room where one of the parents can sit with him and watch the service on a monitor.

      As far as the church’s story vs. the mom’s story, who knows what the truth is? According to the mom, the family was blindsided by the restraining order:

      “They don’t understand how the mechanisms of autism are working at the moment of these disruptions and so forth,” Carol Race said. “And I want to point out that in the last couple of months Adam has been perfectly well-behaved. So that’s what’s shocking to me.”

      A restraining order does seem extreme, however you slice it. I wonder what specific accomodations were offered to the family.

      • I think it’s asking a lot

        to expect people to be “understanding the mechanisms of autism” when they are afraid.  This sounds to me like an angry, defensive mom who isn’t necessarily willing to meet the congregation halfway so her son can be included.  

        • I would be angry too

          if my church filed a restraining order against my kid. I wish both sides could handle the matter with more logic and less emotion (anger, fear) but I guess that’s easier said than done.

          • I agree

            but he’s a BIG kid.  We’ve got some troubled and mentally retarded parishoners at my church, but none that I would be worried about injuring me.

            At one Mass, however, my 2 year old was standing on the kneeling bench, and a girl came from the other end of the pew to put it up (not her bench and no one was using it).  Rory didn’t move, so the girl (late teens?) screamed, knocked Rory off, pushed her down, and closed the bench, repeatedly, on her leg.  I swooped in, grabbed Rory, and pulled her out of HER FATHER’S CONFIRMATION Mass to comfort and quiet her, and brought her back.

            She was obviously not “okay”, because if a healthy teen or adult had done that to a small child, mine or otherwise, I’d have hauled them out of Mass myself and had a hard time not kicking their ass.

            Her folks didn’t even apologize, which is all I would have needed to be over it.  If my 6 month old whines or spits up on someone, I apologize, and if, god forbid, Rory accidentally hurt someone, I’d apologize (and force her to as well).  So the fact that these people did nothing amazed and upset me.

            So, I can understand if someone was acting violently, that the church would need to intervene.

          • feelings

            I don’t know how I’d feel if someone at church whalloped my child and then his mom blamed me for not being understanding.  It’s a not a place I associate with being on guard, so I am sure I’d have some cognitive dissonance, for starters.  And I think I’d be pissed that care was not taken for my child’s safety.  

            Seems like there’s enough anger to go around in this situation.

        • awful

          It’s just awful that this escalated to this point.

          We had a similar problem at a swim club in a town I used to live in.  

          There was an autistic teenage boy there and his parents would let him go about the club on his own.  He would get really close to some of the women, in and out of the water, and make them feel really uncomfortable, so they complained.  And then their was an outcry from some parts of the autistic/special needs community…  

          It was a very tough situation because the club was mostly families, many moms and their kids, and the moms just couldn’t handle this teenager coming so close to them and trying to keep their own children safe.

    • this quote was weird . . .

      Carol blames Adam’s worst behavior, revving a church member’s running car after mass, on a lack of accommodation from the church.

      In this quote the mom is implying that the boy revved a car that he just happened to find running.  That seemed odd to me, so I googled for another article that says he started and revved the car (actually he did this to 2 cars).  A bit different.  

      There’s a lot of ‘he said she said’ here, but I strongly suspect that it’s the mom who is being unreasonable, not the priest who has been trying to find accommodations for the last 3 years.  She still gets my sympathy – I can’t imagine the stress of dealing with an unruly child with the strength of a grown man and little hope of improvement.  But when your disabled son runs out of Easter mass and starts somebody’s car, how can you blame the church?

          • Not unusual

            Folks in small-town Minnesota will frequently leave cars unlocked with the keys in.  My parents still do it when they are back in my hometown in North Dakota (3,500 people). Everyone laughs and calls me “Big City Girl” when I get out of my car there and lock all the doors.  

            • that is wild

              apart from my Big City Girl defense mechanism, I guess I don’t get why people choose to leave the keys in the car. Is it too much effort to carry them around? Do they want to avoid having to look for the keys?

              • Nope

                Just a trust thing.  In a small town, people generally don’t mess with your stuff.  And if someone does, someone else saw it, knows who did it, calls the police and/or the person’s mother, and it’s all settled.  We didn’t lock our house doors either, except at night.  Even then, when I was in high school and out for the evening, my parents left the door unlocked and it was up to me to just lock it when I got home.  

                Every couple of years maybe, some kids would get a car for a joy-ride, but that’s about it.  Now, this was 20 years ago, maybe things have changed a bit. But I know my grandma might take her car keys with her, but still not lock the car.

      • what kind of accommodation

        should the church have provided?  A lock on the door so he couldn’t get out of church?  A paid security guard in the parking lot?

  3. Banned from church

    From what I’ve heard about this story (the town is an hour or two from me) the church offered to let the family sit in a private room in the church and view mass as it happened on a TV, plus have a priest deliver the sacraments, and they refused.  While I do think a restraining order is extreme, I have a feeling we’re not hearing a great deal more of the story from either side.  

    I have not heard anything from other parishers, whether or not they support the priest and/or the family.  If the priest is completely overblowing this, then other church members should be able to corroborate it.  And if the child is indeed distruptive and dangerous, to the point that other church members asked the priest to intervene, then perhaps the parents are in denial.  I suppose since it’s now a legal issue, many details cannot be released, but it definitely seems like there’s more to this.

    • sounds reasonable

      that seems like a very reasonable accommodation on the church’s part. You’re right, I know there is much more to the story from both sides.

    • reasonable

      I hadn’t heard what the accommodation was, only that they were offered.  That sounds like a very reasonable accommodation.

  4. My daughter has autism

    and these stories both make my stomach clench.

    On the other hand, why is it always stories like these that make the news, and never the stories of the magnificent talented teachers who model and practice inclusion and respect and make it all feel totally natural?  Or the congregations that value the faith needs and experiences of members at all levels of ability?

    I am incredibly fortunate to belong to a congregation that has done things like using the ASL symbol for applause instead of clapping when one of our number was unable to handle the sensory overload of applause; and creating detailed lists of ingredients in potluck dishes to allow those with dietary sensitivities to participate & stay safe.  My daughter has a team of volunteers who take it in turns one Sunday a month to provide one-on-one support for her in Sunday school and the nursery.  I can hardly imagine the climate that must have developed to get to the point of a restraining order.  So terribly, terribly sad.

    • so great

      Your story is so great.  That’s what I was thinking about.  

      We have all kind of kids at DS’s school, so at various times kids have learned ASL, Braille, how to handle certain kids’ meltdowns, etc., all as a group and all for the common good.  I think it takes leadership and good will but I know it can be done, and everyone involved is the better for it.

  5. The story of the little boy,

    it made me want to cry.  No child ever deserves to be ostracized in that manner, least of all by a TEACHER, someone who is a trained professional!  My heart breaks for that family.

    I know a family who has an older autistic boy.  He’s 14, over 6 feet and nearly 200 lbs.  I’ve taken him with me out to lunch and shopping.  He is not “severe”, but he does require “reminding” about appropriate behavior.  I hate to admit it, but initially I was afraid of him.  He is much larger and stronger than I am, and he can act out.  He can be interpreted by people who don’t know him as aggressive because he stands to close, or gets “loud”.  I’ve been on the receiving end of dirty looks when we’re out and about.  People will snatch up their kids when we’re in the same aisle.  He’s really a very gentle boy.  I wish I could show the world the home video we have of him interacting with our 16mo DS. DS just loves him!  It makes me sad to think that he will live his entire life with people afraid of him, but that’s what ignorance does.

    Ignorance breeds fear.

    • Your post reminds me of one of my first jobs

      I took a group of teenagers and young adults with autism on a city bus as part of a community learning experience.  One young man, George, was at least six feet tall and the only African American on the whole bus.  He rode the whole way downtown muttering to himself and glaring at me – I was all of 20 years old, so I’m sure some on the bus thought I was in danger.  I knew I wasn’t, though, because earlier in the day when George grabbed my arm, I said “let go” and he said “why?” and I said “because I said so” and he said “oh, OK” and never tried to touch me again! LOL basically a big softie.

    • Are you sure that’s the case?

      It makes me sad to think that he will live his entire life with people afraid of him, but that’s what ignorance does.

      I don’t know how severely autistic or not he may be, but part of the point is that to a greater or lesser degree, social skills can be taught. They’re not something which is instinctively learned, so they do need to be taught, but people do improve. Are you so sure that in 10 or 15 years time he won’t have mastered giving people the right amount of personal space etc?

  6. more at stake

    As a lawyer and church member, the church has an obligation to the whole congregation, not just the boy and his family. Legally they could run the risk of a lawsuit if someone is injured by this young man. The church may not have the resources to provide the desired accommodations for this family. At our church, we volunteers help the special needs kids however we can, but we expect the parents to be ultimately responsible for their own kids and see that they do not injure others or materially disrupt the service. We had a mentally unstable man who beat his wife (he didn’t beat her before the mental illness) that we ultimately had to get a restraining order against to protect her and those who were standing up for her at church. Is everyone outraged by that too? I doubt it. Just because I “understand” autism and mental illness that doesn’t mean we can allow violent or potentially violent individuals to be unrestrained in the church. We are responsible for everyone’s safety and sometimes hard choices have to be made when the other party is unreasonable or unstable as the case may be. We simply don’t have the resources to provide professional security or care. It’s unfortunate it came to the point of a restraining order, but courts don’t grant restraining orders unless a witness shows in sworn testimony an imminent threat of danger or physical harm. It’s not easy to get.

    • Restraining Orders may vary.

      I say this because I know in Scotland, all it takes to get a restraining order is to go before a judge and testify that you feel threatened by someone. You don’t have to show any actual threat, just testify that you feel like they’re a threat to you. I don’t know how much the standard varies from state to state, but I would assume it’s easier in some places than others.
      That’s not to say that in this case it wasn’t warranted, and I’m well aware that the standards can be quite stringent in some states, but I’d caution against assuming that just because a restraining order was given, it must have been justified.

  7. It’s the kindergarten story

    that really gets to me.  I know teaching is difficult and isn’t afforded anywhere near the compensation or respect that it deserves.  But in no way does that make me feel for this teacher.  It gives me more respect for teachers who do their job well, but every parent in that class should be outraged, not just the parents of the autistic child.  I have so much rage in my heart toward Wendy Portillo right now.  If only there was some sort of dishonorable discharge for professions other then the military.

  8. Interesting perspective

    from a letter in our local paper today….

    Thursday,  May 29, 2008 3:12 AM

    I was torn while reading the Associated Press article “Autistic boy barred from Minnesota church” in Friday’s Dispatch. As the parent of a young adult with autism, I can see both sides of the argument.

    For years I have been an advocate for people with disabilities. I have witnessed a changing attitude in society that is more inclusive in some ways, but society has a long way to go in others. I have also seen people who would rather blame others when those others do not embrace a person with a disability who engages in disruptive behavior that would be regarded as unacceptable coming from a typically developing person.

    Protecting the rights of people with disabilities requires “reasonable accommodations.” Missing from the article were reports that the priest did attempt a compromise by offering Mass at home, on closed-circuit television, or mediation — all of which the family declined.

    The mother used autism as an excuse for a lack of discipline. I know only too well about difficult behaviors. My son displayed an array of bizarre, sometimes injurious, behaviors. While I understood it was the autism that caused them, I do not recall ever abdicating my responsibility to teach him a more-acceptable way to behave. It is the hardest work I will ever have, and only someone else who has lived it could understand fully.

    I could address the methods the family uses to help calm the boy (when is sitting on one’s 13-year-old son acceptable?) but will leave that to occupational therapists who are trained in such matters.

    I suggest the parishioners keep their cars locked and keys secured to prevent the young man from using their vehicles. And perhaps the family could weigh what the son gains from attending Mass against their own desire to have him there.



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