Outside of reddit and youtube, where have you seen 3000 comments on a thread? I very much doubt that Silicon Valley’s biggest daily had ever seen such a number before two weeks ago, when the San Jose Mercury News published “Sunnyvale: Neighbors Sue to Declare Autistic Boy a Public Nuisance,” eliciting 2930 comments before the newspaper tied them off. Beyond the headline, your tl;dr version is that the parents and their child were, after years of therapies, incidents, complaints, and negotiations, chased out of their neighborhood, called Arlington Court, and a legal battle continues over the child’s status, medical records, and placement. The comment thread, like any extended dialogue, can’t be easily summarized, but the autism-is-no-excuse crowd was probably outnumbering the autism-requires-sympathy crowd by at least 2-to-1.
Like many people, I’ve been trying to come to terms with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant memoir/letter to his son, “Between the World and Me” (formerly #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, currently #4 in its 10th week). Coates articulates all too well that you can’t entirely shut out the world, you can’t put a child in a castle’s tower like Rapunzel or Frankenstein. Actually that’s misleading, because Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster pretty much has his run of Europe. Reading it recently, every time the “Daemon” spoke I felt a (yes) jolt of electric excitement: this creat(ure)ion is so well spoken! Better than anyone in the book, he understands his mournful situation, doomed to exist between normalcy and the uncanny, always to be Othered and thus exiled. No doubt, I’d like to hear Dar demonstrate any kind of comprehension…up to and including his acknowledgement of the painful dissonances of his life.
One way of reacting to the invocation of Coates is to say: his book is about growing up poor in Baltimore, not rich in Silicon Valley, and you can’t compare the two. Like Walter in The Big Lebowski, I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness…I prefer making connections to severing them. Prejudice exists everywhere; so does nuance. The young Coates was indeed victimized by forces beyond his control; he also may have abetted his difficulties. As you might imagine, the parents of the Sunnyvale boy have said that they did all they could, but their child, in encounters on the street, pulled kids’ hair, bit a woman, struck a baby, spit at kids, kicked a child in the back, repeatedly sat on a neighbor’s cat, and tried to ride his bicycle into people. One Arlington Court resident told the Merc, “We went out of our way to be understanding and kind to him.” And perhaps they did, and part of me wants this lawsuit to inspire others against more neuro-typical bullies.
By the way, if Arlington Court sounds familiar, perhaps you’re thinking of another Jeff Bridges movie of the late 90s (yes), called Arlington Road (tagline: “Fear Thy Neighbor”), where a perfect suburbia is torn asunder by suspicions and dramatic accusations. Oh, wait, no one has seen that except me. (Hey, on that poster, how much does Tim Robbins on that poster resemble the special-needs character he played in Mystic River?) Just as well, because some of the commenters are as myopic and pre-judging as any character in that movie. One example: “The Autistic Zealots [sic] have come out attacking. Using this case to further their agenda.” Another (could be true for all I know): “The ‘father’ told one of the parents ‘oh well! My son has autism and is protected so you can’t do anything to us’ after the parents told him that his son had punched their kid while he was riding his bike.”
For me, the most disturbing paragraph of the main article was this:
The lawsuit – filed last summer by two couples who lived in homes that flanked Gopal and Agrawal’s house – alleges that the boy’s disruptive behavior also created an “as-yet unquantified chilling effect on the otherwise ‘hot’ local real estate market” and that “people feel constrained in the marketability of their homes as this issue remains unresolved and the nuisance remains unabated.”
Okay, now we’re really out of Coates-land and into #firstworldproblems. And though I don’t quite have a house in the cradle of the world’s most capitalized, most desirable industry, this situation brings up a lot of fears for me, or as Jill Escher, president of the board of the Autism Society of the San Francisco Bay Area, said: “What scared us in the Bay Area is that there are thousands of kids just like this one. Imagine if lawsuits like this were allowed to proliferate on such allegations. This could happen to all autistic families at the drop of a hat. They would not know where to go.”
My autistic, almost-6-year-old son spends almost every afternoon tee-tee-tee-ing in the backyard. He is LOUD, upset or not, and his loudness sounds to me like a constant car alarm: as irritating as it is illogical. I’m close friends with my backyard’s closest neighbors (a couple), and they have repeatedly assured me that they barely hear Dar over the not-so-dull-roar of their own kids, who are all older than Dar. I truly hope this is a fact and not a courtesy. Lucky for me his three kids were, in some ways, screaming in my ear before Dar was even born, and so I may be spending a bit of built-up capital. (And people ask me why I don’t move for my career.) However, that isn’t the entire problem, because I’ve noticed that I can hear Dar in my backyard when I’m as far away as a half-block. Therapists will arrive laughing that they know he’s home. Not sure that all my within-earshot neighbors consider that noise to be a laughing matter.
Dar’s noises bother us when he’s inside, and that’s one reason we built a lanai last year (I use the Hawaiian word for deck/balcony, because ours got us seven feet closer to Hawaii) – one more place to release the pressure. Three nights ago, the lanai turned out to be a perfect place from which to watch the bloodmoon’s eclipse (the same neighbor popped over with one of the kids I just mentioned – he couldn’t see it from his house). Three hours ago, however, at seven in the morning, Dar insisted on going out to the lanai, where he promptly freaked out. It took me a few minutes to realize that he desperately wanted to stim on a hat of mine that he’d thrown into the tree just outside the lanai. Finally discovering my discarded (but nice!) hat, I reached for it as Dar couldn’t, handed it to him, and he calmed down, but presumably not before waking three or four houses’ worth of neighbors.
First, I’m generally a good neighbor – helpful when I can be, keeping the neighborhood earthquake supplies in my shed. Second and more importantly, Dar hasn’t hit anyone and probably wouldn’t. He’s never aggressive – thank you Divine Creator/Dr. Frankenstein – but Dar could potentially push someone accidentally. (Perhaps that’s true of all kids.) It’s not quite accurate to say that no one has complained: we have received dubious and anonymous attention from the City of Berkeley about our supposedly overgrown vines (cop rang doorbell for surprise inspection, found nothing wrong) and graffiti that someone did on our outer wall (similar outcome). It is possible that the asshole lodging these cowardly complaints with the city (why not come to me about it, or leave me a note?) isn’t hearing Dar, but it’s also possible that he is. How much of a fortress can we keep Dar in? And even if we could, what’s really good for him?
Wifey and I disagree on, say, how much to let him run around in a place like Starbucks while waiting for coffee. And it’s important to note that good people can disagree on a situation like this. Frankly, I’m not so sure that the neighbors in Arlington Court were wrong to file a lawsuit – they have to protect their children too. They tell more of their story here, and I sympathize. I don’t claim to know all the nuances in the case, and it’s possible that the neighbors should have dropped it the moment that the family with the autistic boy fled their rental house; it’s also possible they need to see the now-11-year-old kid’s medical records. It’s also possible that the damage specified was way out of proportion. “The question I have for each and every one of you is: Do you want to be solution-oriented and a great role model for your kids?” Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Maureen A. Folan asked both sides’ parents the other day, who were standing before a packed courtroom. “Or do you want to be the opposite of that, and be litigation-oriented?”
Something must have reached a tipping point, that one party felt like going to the media and creating this circus, up to and including the comment thread that has occasioned my own personal version of one of Dar’s freakouts. It does feel like the sort of situation where you shouldn’t comment until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes – the parents of the kid, the neighbors, perhaps both. And so perhaps it’s slightly heartening that the most “liked” of the 2930 comments is from such a person, although if you’ve been following this long, you can imagine that the comment gives comfort to the control-your-kid crowd:
I have a child with autism who is sometimes violent. I keep him in our yard only. If another child comes over, I warn them, and I warn their parents. It is up to them to not come back if they are hurt or offended by something my son does. What I do NOT do is allow him to roam the neighborhood, or to stay outside while he’s cursing at the top of his lungs, or screaming and making a spectacle of himself. Yes, he has issues. Yes, they are horrible, and have made our lives hell. But they’re OUR problems – not our neighbors’. And they shouldn’t have to deal with it.
I kind of agree with this. Except that we DO let our kid make his noisy noises, not because we want our neighbors to deal with them, but because they also have loud kids with loud friends, because we’re hoping against hope that property values wouldn’t change because of something like this, and mostly because we’re just hoping for a little grace, a little slack, a little relying on the kindness of strange-and-not-so-strangers. But if one Bay Area lawsuit can allege an autistic child’s “chilling effect,” let me assure the filing party that this particular chill is felt in both directions.