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After a Troubled Past, Autistic Home Reopens

August 14, 1986|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Suspicion and anger have followed the Behavior Research Institute from the beginning. What was supposed to have been a haven for forgotten children has become a battleground.

Autistic children live at the institute, children rescued from the back wards of state hospitals. These are normally placid children given to unexplained wailing and thrashing, bloody tantrums. The institute opened in 1977 to treat them with a controversial technique called aversive therapy.

The purpose of this therapy is to use rewards and punishments to discourage "inappropriate" behavior. At the institute, the punishments have, over the years, included pinching children's feet and arms, spanking them and spraying cold water in their faces. Proponents of the therapy say such measures are necessary to help severely disturbed children. Others say aversive therapy is nothing less than child abuse.

The institute was first located in a ranch-style house on a quiet Northridge street. Neighbors told stories of crying children who fled into the street only to be caught by staff members and taken back inside. There were screams in the early morning--noises that sounded like someone being stabbed to death, the neighbors said.

Boy Found Dead

At times the staff felt as though state health inspectors and county investigators were watching every minute of every day. In 1981 a 14-year-old boy was found dead, strapped to a bed in the home. Critics said their worst fears had come true, but a coroner's inquest concluded that the child died of natural causes. The state, which had begun a full-scale investigation before the death, placed the institute on two-years' probation.

Last spring, when at last it seemed that the critics had quieted, the pressure had eased, a disgruntled employee burglarized the institute and set it afire. Staff and children were sent running into the night.

But the institute survived. In fact, it has flourished. After several months, the children and staff have returned, moving into a four-bedroom house set against brush-covered hills in Sunland. Two additional homes and a day school recently opened in Northern California, near Oakland. The Behavior Research Institute is back in business.

David Bristow teaches morning class at the institute, moving quickly from desk to desk. The students in this room--the lower-functioning group--lean over pegboards or colored blocks, sometimes working intently at the coordination tasks, other times staring blankly into space.

Only about five of every 10,000 children are affected by autism and no one knows what causes the disorder. Researchers now suspect that it may be neurophysiological, something to do with the transmission of nerve impulses throughout the body.

The outward characteristics include severe withdrawal interrupted by sudden outbursts of violence against themselves or others. Ritualistic head banging, rocking and teeth grinding are common in autistic children. Some can become marginally self-sufficient and independent. Most require lifelong care in either a state hospital or private home.

Six boys from the ages of 15 to 22 live at the institute in Southern California. Five other children are bused in daily by the Los Angeles Unified School District to attend the institute's summer school, taught down the block at a former home for asthmatic children.

Bristow, 30, keeps moving from student to student. Jack, at 15 the youngest resident of the institute, slaps his face and cries out loud. Sharon, a newcomer, lies beneath a table, refusing to get up. Curtis mumbles over and over that he wants to go swimming. Jeff watches. The teacher keeps up a constant banter, speaking in a lazy Texas drawl. With a change apron tied around his waist, he looks and sounds like a carnival barker nearing the end of the summer season.

"No crying, Jack. No slapping your face. Sit down, Curtis."

Jeff, 18 and muscular, strikes out at Bristow. The teacher calmly sidesteps the punch. Last month, Jeff broke another teacher's nose. It was the sixth broken bone he has inflicted on the staff in three years, Bristow says.

"No hitting, Jeff. Work on your task, Curtis."

Jack has finished sorting a pile of colored pegs. Bristow reaches into his change apron and tosses a penny into Jack's cup. It is a reward. The penny can be spent on candy or toys later in the day.

"What's your contract for, Jack?"

"Not hitting my face," Jack answers.

"That's right."

Another penny clangs into the cup.

"What do you get if you don't slap your face all morning?"

"Round Table pizza."

"That's right."

The wounds on Jack's cheeks where he had slapped his face until the skin split open are beginning to heal.

"Where are you going, Curtis?"

The obese boy with a wide grin and silver front tooth has jumped from his chair and is lumbering toward the door. Bristow springs after him, catching Curtis in the hall and pulling him back inside by the sweat shirt. The teacher tickles the boy, who bends over in giggles.

"You think you're going to get away from me, Curtis?"

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