LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Autism education needed in court system

By Veronica Galindo Odessa

There are so many things in life that we take for granted. Simple things such as having the freedom to go to the stores, go eat at a restaurant or go to see a movie, are things that we don’t really think about not being able to do. But for those of us who have a family member who is involved in a legal situation where they are confined to wearing an ankle monitor we learn to appreciate these freedoms.

There is no such thing as “innocent until proven guilty.” Even though a defendant has not been convicted yet, many times they are still treated as criminals and placed on a monitoring system. When the individual accused is a person who has special needs such as autism, it is difficult for them to comprehend the reasoning as to why they are being treated in this manner. It makes it more difficult when dealing with a judicial system that is uneducated on how to handle these types of cases. There is little support in the Permian Basin for families who have family members with autism. And there is no support for families with family members who have autism who end up involved in a legal problem.

April is national Autism Awareness month and that is something that is needed in the Permian Basin. The educational system, law enforcement system and the judicial system in Ector County need improvement in dealing with people who have autism. There needs to be some education and training.

Our family has been living a nightmare for almost a year now. My son was diagnosed with autism last year at the age of 18. My son was a late bloomer who had speech difficulties at a young age. Because of his shyness and speech problems, I chose to not enroll him in public school. He attended private school and later attended a public online high school. He first attended a public school his 10th-grade year. That is when his problems with depression began and his anxiety worsened.

His legal situation is due to him developing an infatuation with a young teacher and sending her correspondence, which she found frightening. She felt threatened and instead of talking to me about the situation as a professional teacher should have, she went straight to the police. It was my understanding that when a teacher has a problem with a student that the correct procedure was to have a parent/teacher conference. Perhaps some teachers or principals who read this can explain to me if that is the way it is supposed to be done. It was also my understanding that if a problem occurs at a school during school hours and it involves a student, that the police would also notify the parents. However, that does not appear to be the way things work in Ector County.

Our family did not find out that there were any criminal charges filed against my son until early June (when school was over) and three police cars arrived and arrested my son at his grandparents’ home one evening. He was charged with stalking, which is a third-degree felony. He was indicted in August and placed on an electronic monitoring system. He has been very depressed throughout all this situation because of course, his intention was not to frighten this teacher. He is not and never has been a violent student and had never caused problems in school. However, the legal system does not see it that way and he has been made to look and feel by the system and this teacher as if he is a “danger to society,” which only makes things worse for someone who has autism. He is currently back in jail with no bond because he supposedly broke bond conditions. During one of his “meltdowns,” which are common in autistic people, he started texting people about obtaining a gun, which he intended to use on himself (not on anyone else) because of how this whole issue has caused him to feel and how long this case has been dragging on. He did not obtain possession of a gun and it would have been impossible for him to do so anyway as our family does not own guns and with him being on an ankle monitor. The texts were reported to the police and he was arrested.

Despite the numerous medical records I have presented which all document my son’s autism, it does not seem to have helped. There are even records of a QEEG brain scan which was done on him before we found out of criminal charges being filed. This brain scan shows the areas of his brain that are not working properly and the recommendations to help improve those areas. My son is an MHMR client and has been receiving treatment this whole time. However, none of that is being taken into consideration by the court.

Autism is not a mental illness as many people probably believe. It cannot be “fixed” by being institutionalized or by being prescribed medication. Merriam Webster defines autism as being a “variable developmental disorder that appears by age three and is characterized by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships, by impairment of the ability to communicate with others, and by repetitive behavior patterns.”

The best type of treatment for autism is not to keep medicating the person but to use neurofeedback therapy which is like a “retraining of the brain.” This type of therapy has been proven to help issues with autism, anxiety, depression, ADHD, dyslexia, chronic pain, and many other disorders. I know that this type of therapy would help my son to be able to live a normal life. My son was able to have a couple of these type of sessions done before being indicted and he reported he could feel a difference. However, this type of treatment is only available in Midland and once my son was placed on the monitoring system the conditions were also that he not be allowed to leave Ector County. So, I was not able to take him to receive this therapy anymore.

Not only was he not able to receive regular medical treatment in Midland, he was also not allowed to complete his GED classes. The reasoning was that since I would not be able to accompany him to the classes, to ensure that he wouldn’t be a “danger to society,” that he could not be allowed to attend. The GED program director knew of his situation and even wrote a letter supporting him in being allowed to attend. It didn’t make a difference. Ironically, he was allowed to continue to work 40 hours a week at a grocery store where he had to interact with the public on a regular basis even though I was not present. Does this even make any sense?

I have no idea what the outcome will be when my son is released from jail. It is my hope that someday soon, he will be allowed to receive the medical treatment of neurotherapy which will most benefit him. It is also my hope that there will be more education and training done in Ector County in the law enforcement and legal field as well as in the education field. A good resource as to how to obtain training in dealing with autistic individuals can be found at http://www.autismadvisorsandadvocates.com. It is my hope that someday we will be able to take him to eat at a restaurant, go shopping, go see a movie or go on a family vacation. It is my hope that there will not be another family with an autistic family member or any family member with special needs who has to go through what our family is going through right now.