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People with Autism Especially Vulnerable

Perhaps like you, recently I read of an incident in Okeechobee, Florida, in which an 18-year-old man was recorded on video beating, choking, kicking, and holding a knife to the throat of a 16-year-old boy with autism. It made national news.

The National Institutes of Health defines autism spectrum disorder as "a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior." Due to lacking social skills, children with autism are at risk of being bullied or abused.

As an experiment, I recently Googled "autistic boy 2014" to see what I would find. Besides a number of internet "missing autistic boy" articles, I found many disturbing newspaper and TV stories about boys with autism being bullied or abused. (I placed "autistic" into Google because most media outlets still refer to children with autism as "autistic"; and "boy" because 80 percent of people with autism are male.)

Here's a sampling of what I found for 2014.

  • In Maryland, two teenage girls faced sentencing after holding a butcher's knife to the throat of a 16-year-old boy with autism and luring him onto a half-frozen pond until he broke through. They refused to help. They recorded the incident on a cellphone.
  • Two California parents were arrested for rooming their 11-year-old son in a large dog kennel.
  • A New York City paraprofessional punched an 11-year-old boy with autism in a school cafeteria. Police, after watching video, charged the paraprofessional with felony assault, endangering a minor's welfare, menacing, and harassment. The boy had spilled water, and had not understood the paraprofessional's request to clean it up.
  • A Michigan teacher verbally mocked in class a 10-year-old male student with autism stuck in a chair. She recorded the incident on her cellphone.
  • In Texas, three teens robbed at gunpoint, beat, and knocked down a 17-year-old boy with autism.
  • Recorded on video in a Walmart parking lot, a Florida man was arrested on child abuse charges for beating with closed fist a nonverbal, 13-year-old boy with autism.
  • Also in Florida, and on video, a special education school bus driver was arrested on child abuse charges for repeatedly slapping across the face a 10-year-old boy with autism physically restrained in a harness while on the bus.

Remember, people of all ages with autism are especially vulnerable. If you witness an incident, do the right thing. Immediately report it.

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Daniel J. Vance is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor from Vernon Center, Minn. His weekly newspaper column Disabilities has been published in more than 260 newspapers.

Daniel J. Vance may be reached at

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