Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Bigotry Defense?

Some of you may be familiar with the Alex Barton/Wendy Portillo case. For those of you who aren't, it started two years ago, when a kindergarten teacher (Portillo) had her class list off why they didn't like an autistic classmate (Alex Barton) and then had them vote him out of her class. To briefly summarize a really, really long story, Alex is now doing quite well academically in a different school district (although he still bears emotional scars), Wendy Portillo is back in the classroom (retaining her tenure) and again abusing students, and Alex's mom, Melissa, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Portillo and the St. Lucie County school district.

I'm writing this blog entry about that last one. You see, the school district's defense is apparently going to be something along the lines of the argument that the incident didn't hurt Alex... because autistic children can't understand -- or be hurt by -- "negative social feedback" (or, in other words, someone else doing something nasty to them).

No, I'm not joking.

After going through quite a bit of trouble, I've managed to obtain some of the documents that the district's submitted in their defense. Specifically, I've obtained the "expert testimony" that they commissioned from two doctors: Dr. Sue Antell and Dr. Max Wiznitzer.

These are quotes from public documents available on PACER, albeit not for free. I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get them (although, admittedly, most of these were technical -- I didn't bring a memory card with me when I went to visit my school's law library, the law library's one computer set up for PACER access was an antiquated technical nightmare, and I didn't want to unnecessarily spend money to get the documents from my home system), but they're still technically public domain. As such, I've uploaded them to RapidShare to cut down on the metaphorical red tape. Feel free to host them elsewhere.

I'm not going to comment over-much on them. I'm going to let what they wrote speak for themselves. I will, however, clarify a bit on both.

To start off with, there's this section of Dr. Antell's testimony -- delivered before she ever met or examined Alex (whose full name is Caleb Alex Barton, although he does not respond to "Caleb"):
... Based upon this review, it is my opinion that CAB probably does have Autism, a disorder of language, executive functioning and social relatedness, which profoundly impacts upon how a child perceives and reacts to the language and behavior of other people.

It is further my opinion that the events described would not be expected to have any long term impact even upon a typical child who might appreciate more of what was going on around him. As they grow up, children experience numerous negative or unpleasant experiences with peers, teachers and parents. Such experiences are part of the normal experience of development. They serve to help a child develop an appreciation for the impact of his behavior on others in his world, and are important in the development of sympathy, empathy, and altruism. This is quite different from the constant and chronic bullying which we unfortunately see somewhat among older children, or the chronic systematic emotional abuse of a child by the adults in his life. In any child with Autism, such experiences are going to be processed quite differently. Depending on the extent of the pragmatic language dysfunction, the lack of social relatedness, and the impairment in the ability to appreciate another's point of view (what psychologists call "Theory of Mind") it is quite likely that many, if not most children with autism would simply have no emotional connection to such events. While they might encode and recall the "script" (i.e. the language used and the actual events), their ability to be emotionally impacted by what is almost entirely a language based experience would be anticipated to be exceedingly limited. This is not to imply that Autistic children cannot experience trauma. Rather it attempts to distinguish between possibly unpleasant events which are the result of linguistic exchanges from more primitive responses which might involve non verbal actions, or verbal communications which would produce feelings of fear or terror which are generated by non cortical brain regions.

Beyond this, we have the opinion of a qualified child psychiatrist that CAB suffered no emotional distress as a result of this incident, and another who described behavior with autism but not PTSD.

Based on the foregoing, it is my opinion to a reasonable degree of neuropsychological probability that CAB has not demonstrated any real evidence of emotional distress as a consequence of the events of 5-21-08. It is further my impression that he does not require any ongoing treatment, and depending on his ability to appreciate what is happening in such therapy, that this poses a risk of creating a trauma where none actually exists.
Two clarifications: "The events described" were the vote-out incident. The same is true of "the events of 5-21-08".

And then there's Wiznitzer's testimony:
In summary, Caleb Barton is an 8 year old boy with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (Asperger disorder) and behavioral features labeled as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (including compatible rating scales). He has a history of challenging behaviors in kindergarten with no details of his behavioral functioning since that time (except for the report of Dr. Coleman). School records document impairment in social interaction with peers (supported by psychiatric evaluations). Assuming that his diagnoses are accurate, it would be difficult for a child with a significant impairment in socialization (compounded by the social issues associated with ADHD) to fully process and comprehend the impact of negative social feedback from peers (as stated by Dr. LoSardo "on some level he probably didn't get social significance"). Therefore, this type of event would not be expected to result in PTSD.

Dr. Wiznitzer's testimony is nowhere near as bad as Dr. Antell's... but really.

To the St. Lucie County school board, however, I have only one thing to say.


  1. Glad you were able to overcome the technical hurdles.

    How does negative social feedback help any child develop sympathy, empathy or altruism?

  2. I hope Melissa Barton (and Alex) win their case. The school board needs to have their noses rubbed in their mess.

  3. Holy cow. What a bunch of bunk I've ever witnessed in my life. Obviously this is someone not intimate with autism at all. Can you share this testimony with me? I'd like to be able to cite it in a video.

  4. Kent,

    That would be why I uploaded the original document .pdf files to RapidShare and linked to them in the entry...

    Hmm. I guess I'll edit the entry to make the links a bit more clear (when I get the chance). If you didn't figure it out (the links are both labled "testimony"), it's a fair bet that other readers may not have, either. In any case, just click on the "testimony" link for either document and you'll get the relevant RapidShare link.

    On a completely different note, have you seen the article at ? Knowing you, I suspect you'll enjoy it...

  5. So basically, in a nutshell, their defense boils down to "life is cruel, deal with it" and PTSD doesn't exist among auties? Lame. I hope Melissa's lawyers hang these suckers out to dry. It's shameful... in fact - downright reprehensible - to make excuses for treating people badly. Or will they now try to suggest that auties aren't PEOPLE?

  6. And how is is overlooked that even though Alex might not have "fully process(ed) and comprehended the impact of negative social feedback from peers" because of his autism, there is no mention of how, also *because* of his autism, he probably took these comments from his peers and teacher to be literal facts until someone (probably mom) explicitly explained it to him?

    Beautiful song, BTW. I'll have that running through my head at our next IEP meeting :) - Mom to 9 year old aspie Julian. We met you at the FAU/CARD family conference.

  7. Elizabeth,

    Moreover, I've heard enough about Alex's reactions to those events to know how badly he was affected. Yes, the literalism issue could have been a problem (I haven't exactly questioned Alex on the issue)... but their assertions are quite false.

    I'm normally nowhere near crude enough to deliver the sort of response I did, but for this sort of occasion... I'll make an exception.

  8. I'm sure there are many good and self-respecting black businessmen and women who have had a good number of traumatizing experiences. Life is hard. We all do deal with it regardless of our "community."

    It shouldn't follow that there ought be no recourse for the people who have been wronged!!