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Crushed to Death: The Issue with Restraining Autism Meltdowns


By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake" Blog Series - Slice #20


As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Sia's restraint scenes in her movie Music were one of the big reasons why her film tanked so bad amongst viewers and the autism community. I also mentioned that Sia's movie could potentially influence people to inflict dangerous harm on autistic people by restraining them. But, most importantly, I have said through a comment stated by Autistic Self Advocacy Network Director Zoe Gross that the dangerous usage of restraints has tragically killed individuals during the process of restraining due to having a meltdown. Meltdowns are a reaction that someone has when they feel overwhelmed, but having a grown adult force their body weight on someone is overwhelming and can be suffocating and fatal.


The case of Max Benson, who died on November 28, 2018, due to suffocation from a physical restraint done by staff members at an EL Dorado Hills school for special needs is an example of In an article titled, Court hearing for former Guiding Hands staffers in boy's death at school moves to January, Sacramento Bee Writer Sawsan Morrar explains the details of Max's death from the civil suit case that was filed against the school and the staff members when she states, "The civil suit filed on behalf of Benson's family and other families of Guiding Hands students alleges Wohlwend held Max's upper body while other staff members — Jill Watson, Betty Morgan and Le'Mon Thomas — took turns holding Max's legs down." The article continues by stating that the staff, "imposed a prolonged prone restraint on Max and failed to render competent medical aid to Max." It also noted that Max was held face down for 105 minutes and that the staff used, "an amount of force which is not reasonable and necessary under the circumstances." According to another article titled, The very real, very painful reasons the autistic community demanded two restraint scenes be removed from Sia's new film 'Music,' Columnist Writer Theresa Vargas adds more information about the lawsuit. Vargas states, "A lawsuit alleges staff members restrained him for nearly two hours, even as he vomited and urinated on himself."

In the same article, Max Benson's mother, Stacia Langley, wrote a letter to Sia about her son Max to have Sia remove the restraint scenes in her movie. In the letter, Stacia states, "A couple of days ago, I wrote to you to tell you about my son, Max, and how he was killed in a prone restraint at his school just over two years ago, it was hard to write, and I was not sure that you would even see it." According to the letter, Sia listened to Stacia when she states, "You see, I spent Max's entire life begging people to listen, to care about him, to act as he mattered," she writes. "Those pleas mostly fell on closed ears, obviously with tragic results. You listened, Sia. It is so challenging to listen and harder yet to change one's mind based on new information. You have to be brave to listen." Those who have seen the movie know this is not a true statement. The movie shows restraint scenes without any disclaimers at the beginning of the film. According to an article titled, 'Autistic Community Unsettled by Sia's Film' Music,' an Offensive Piece of 'Ableist Minstrelsy,' where Weekend Editor for the IndieWire Ryan Lattanzio made a statement about the restraint scenes in Sia's movie. He states, "(Supposedly, those scenes were to be removed before the film's final release, though as of this writing, a version of the movie featuring the restraint is currently available for rent on Amazon)."


A real-life example of death by restraint is the tragic case of Eric Parsa, who died at 16-years old due to being physically restrained by police officers who sat on him one after another for a total of nine minutes. In an article titled, Parents Sue Louisiana Sheriff and Deputies Over Autistic Son's Death, General Assignment Reporter Allyson Waller explains the tragic turn events in detail. Waller states, "On January 19, Eric and his parents were leaving a laser tag facility in Metairie, La. — about eight miles northwest of New Orleans — when Eric experienced a sensory overload while in the parking lot, according to the lawsuit. Eric started slapping himself and his father, prompting a shopping center employee to call the police for assistance after receiving permission from Eric's parents."

In conclusion, after reading this blog, I hope that you remember that those in the autistic community are people too. We have good days, bad days, better days, and worse days, just like anybody else. You also need to remember, is that people who are autistic experience things within their bodies that they cannot control because their brains are wired differently from the average neurotypical. As stated by Mighty Community Member Aime in an article titled, Sia, Addresses Depictions of Lethal Restraint During Autistic Meltdown in 'Music,' "A meltdown is not a tantrum. It's not something we can control," Therefore, the next time you see someone having a meltdown in public, DO NOT respond by throwing your entire body weight on a person restraining them. Instead, follow Aime's advice when she states, "What's helpful is just sitting quietly and waiting for us to work through it. No talking. Make sure we are safe but allow us to work through it. You cannot force us out of a meltdown. It only makes it hurt more. I think something that neurotypicals don't understand is that meltdowns hurt. Physically and emotionally."

The article continues as Waller writes about surveillance footage that showed Eric flailing around and hitting his dad until the sheriff's deputy arrived on the scene. Then Allyson explained the deputy's role in this when she states, "The deputy then placed Eric face down on the ground while sitting on him, "using his substantial body weight," as he waited for other officers to arrive on the scene, according to the lawsuit. The authorities had been informed that Eric had special needs when they arrived, said William Most, one of the lawyers representing Eric's parents." Finally, Allyson explains the remaining moments of the event when she states, "After six other deputies arrived, they handcuffed Eric, and his legs were shackled. Next, three deputies sat on him — one after another — and one of them placed him in a chokehold. In total, they sat on Eric for just over nine minutes, lawyers said."


"Too many autistic people have been restrained against their will, and too often that action has resulted in injuries, trauma or death," says, Vergas. This is especially tragic because these individuals are dying because people forget that autistic people are human beings. Also, reflecting on the issue of restraining neurodivergent individuals, Jennifer Tidd, a mother from Northern Virginia, stated, "This is what we're dealing with when we have kids who have intellectual and developmental disabilities; they're not seen as people."


In conclusion, after reading this blog, I hope that you remember that those in the autism community are people too. We have good days, bad days, better days, and worse days, just like anybody else. Also, it would help if you remembered that people who are autistic experience things within their bodies that they cannot control because their brains are wired differently from the average neurotypical. As stated by Mighty Community Member Aime in an article titled, Sia, Addresses Depictions of Lethal Restraint During Autistic Meltdown in 'Music,' "A meltdown is not a tantrum. It's not something we can control," Therefore, the next time you see someone having a meltdown in public, DO NOT respond by throwing your entire body weight on a person restraining them. Instead, follow Aime's advice when she states, "What's helpful is just sitting quietly and waiting for us to work through it. No talking. Make sure we are safe but allow us to work through it. You cannot force us out of a meltdown. It only makes it hurt more. I think something that neurotypicals don't understand is that meltdowns hurt. Physically and emotionally."

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