**Content warning for in-school abuse, confinement, restraint, and murder of an autistic person**
On November 30th, 2018, 13-year-old Max Benson was restrained by multiple school staff during an autistic meltdown. Staff members, including the principal, executive director, and special education teachers, took turns placing pressure on his back and held him face-down. After being held like this for over an hour and a half, Max vomited and lost consciousness. After twenty-five minutes from the time he lost consciousness, staff called 911 for a medical emergency. Max was taken away to a hospital, where he died two days later of multiple organ failure and cardiac arrest.
After Max’s death, multiple other students and former students of Max’s school in California, Guiding Hands School, shared their stories about how staff had violently restrained and confined them. The survivors shared how they lived in fear of staff that restrained them, and could never feel safe in school.
Sufficient evidence against Guiding Hands School staff was found in the criminal trial, and manslaughter charges were laid against the staff. Guiding Hands School remains closed to this day. But we still do not have justice. Justice is us having Max back. Justice is neurodivergent children being able to go to school and learn, and make friends, and be respected by staff members, not be treated as prisoners.
The restraint and forced confinement of autistic and neurodivergent students remains legal and widely practiced in the United States, in Canada, and around the world. Guiding Hands School is closed, but the conditions that led to Max Benson’s death have gone unchallenged. Max was a victim of violent staff members, but he is also victim of a system that autistic youth are still growing up in, where they can face restraint and imprisonment for autistic meltdown. Any other autistic student could have taken Max’s place, and unless the system is challenged, another student will.
As classrooms are right now, overcrowded due to austerity policies, overstimulating, and lacking in support for neurodivergence, autistic meltdown is an expected outcome for autistic students made to learn in this hostile environment. Having a room with low, gentle stimulation, as a “break room” or “sensory room” where an autistic student can decompress when overstimulated, is a necessary support for schools to put in place as long as classrooms remain hostile to autistic sensory perceptions. We fight for these rooms to be put in place. But in some cases, autistic students are confined in these rooms against their will, as disciplinary action for their meltdowns.
School systems that create conditions where autistic students cannot learn, discipline underachieving autistic students, confine them against their will when they are having a meltdown, and place them in restraints, are setting up autistic people for a life in the correctional systems. This is called the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”. Normalizing confinement, normalizing restraint, and disciplining people for their own natural bodily reactions to a hostile environment, induces trauma that will often result in the victim believing that they belong in confinement and restraint, and that they are bad people. Childhood trauma is a leading cause of criminal activity and abusive behaviour in teen and adulthood. Instead of a place where we learn art and science, schools that confine and restrain autistic people are places where we learn that we are bad people who should be in prison for other peoples’ safety.
We must challenge this criminal justice model of seclusion and restraint, to end the School-to-Prison Pipeline, ensure the safety of autistic youth, and make our schools a place where autistic people can learn to be leaders in their community. Instead of being punished for divergent behaviour and meltdowns, we must observe what environment factors are causing a child with a divergent mind to melt down and feel unsafe. We must build school systems flexible to the needs of the students and each person’s safety, rather than make them conform to a hostile, dangerous environment.
A typical child goes to school, gets an education, and becomes a community leader more often than a neurodivergent child because the typical child does not find school to be a traumatizing experience. We must work to make these schools a place where neurodivergent children will not be traumatized, to bridge the gap between the likelihood that a child with a divergent mind will succeed in school compared to a typical child.