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Why I Believe It's Dangerous for Autistic Kids to Be Exposed to 'Isolation Rooms' in School

Isolation rooms are commonly used in many schools, typically with children who are on the autism spectrum. The isolation rooms are essentially a white cement closet with nothing inside. The door has either a small window or small peephole, and many of them have locks. All you need to do is google “prison solitary confinement rooms” and what pops up is exactly what many isolation rooms look like in our schools.

Some schools say they use these “time-out” rooms when the child becomes aggressive, destructive or can’t calm down. I believe we need to sit down, come together as one and discuss the use of these isolation rooms in the classrooms of our children with disabilities. The policies in my area (Alberta, Canada) are so broad that I believe they are becoming misused and abused. Children who are nonverbal are winding up in these rooms for hours at a time… unsupervised. Some parents are not notified this is happening. Children are being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from school. The opportunity for abuse is high, and the evidence of abuse is growing.

I recently had my own experience with an isolation room. My 6-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, Tourette syndrome, nonverbal learning disorder profile, sensory processing disorder and OCD. I had two meetings with my son’s new teacher to discuss a behavior plan, triggers and ways to manage and approach him. The teacher showed me the “chill room” which is now what I know to be the isolation room. I very clearly expressed I did not want this room used because my son would self-harm inside of it and it would damage the school relationship. I said I specifically moved into this area so I could be less than two minutes away and that in the event anything were to happen I wanted an immediate phone call and I would come get him.

We had a plan that we all — including the teacher — agreed upon. He was to begin a specialized program in a class of six with a teacher and one aide. Everything was so great, we were so incredibly hopeful. Then it was shattered within mere minutes. We set up a time with the teacher for my son to come and do one more school tour, see the class and get acquainted. It was Friday, and my son was apprehensive about the school tour but excited to play on the playground and swings. We walked inside, and the teacher greeted us. My son avoided eye contact and didn’t want to engage with him. I encouraged my son and took him by the hand to walk down the hallway. He dropped to the floor as we turned down the hallway. His anxiety set in, and he was nervous, so I physically picked him up and brought him into the class. My son started saying words like “shut up” and didn’t want to communicate. The teacher assured me, “it’s all good,” but then took a demanding and authoritative approach which triggered my son even more. He was now sitting on a bean bag, not engaging positively, and the teacher said to him, “Let me show you this room.” My son said, “OK.” The teacher began to open the door and said, “When kids are bad this is where they go.” It immediately triggered my son to swat at and spit at him, and the teacher put his hand on his back. My son then attempted to punch him. The teacher then grabbed my son and threw him inside the isolation room and locked the door.

I was in utter shock and couldn’t believe this just happened on a simple tour of the school. I ran up to the door and tried opening it, but I couldn’t. I yelled at the teacher in disbelief that he just ruined any hope for positive interaction… everything we worked so hard for, and to open this door right now! He came back over and opened the door. My son was visibly upset, angry and scared. The teacher said he needed a moment and left the room. My older son, wide-eyed, was scared too. In a matter of minutes, everything we worked so hard for — everything we were working toward — all of our hopes for this school year were shattered. Everything we discussed at this meeting the teacher had seemingly forgotten. For this teacher to do this in front of me, what could he do when I’m not there?

It was a traumatic event for all of us. I’m terrified to send my child to that school or anywhere for that matter. My son won’t stop talking about it. All he says on repeat is, “I hate that school, I hate that school, I hate that school.” And now? My son has told me “not safe” with our in-home workers. He refuses to leave our home, and any hope for school to be positive is gone.

 

With autistic children, it’s widely known these isolation rooms do nothing but escalate the situation while also causing severe harm and PTSD. Yet in some schools, these rooms are being used as a means to de-escalate a situation. It needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. Teachers need to be provided with proper training when dealing with autistic children. They need more support in the classroom, and they need to listen! These rooms need to be used appropriately with voluntary entry, have sensory equipment inside and with parental consent have video monitoring systems.

Within the last couple of weeks, isolation rooms have become a big topic within the disabilities community. It has made headlines in my province and many others. Horrifying stories — much worse than my own — are emerging. I know some parents who are suing another school district due to their nonverbal, autistic son being locked inside one of these prison cells, naked, unsupervised and covered in his own feces.

When is this abuse going to end? When is the government going to step in and say this stops now?

The most vulnerable children in our school systems need to be protected. Stand up for my son and every other little boy and girl who are vulnerable to this treatment. This conversation is important, and we must keep it going until real change happens.

Photo credit: Marchcattle/Getty Images