Wanting It Both Ways

On the afternoon of July 14, 2015, Paul Gordo knocked a woman to the ground outside of the Marina, CA public library. The woman, age 58, suffers from Huntington’s disease and walks with a cane. She sustained a concussion that left her unresponsive for several minutes. Worse, the fall permanently exacerbated the symptoms of her disease. Paul Gordo was charged with felony assault.

The case made news because Paul Gordo, age 18 at the time, is autistic and significantly impaired. Many months earlier his school district had determined that he needed to be educated in a “home” placement, wherein a teacher from the district meets with the student in a location other than a district facility, because he could not function in the school setting. A new teacher contacted Paul's parents and asked to schedule a two-hour class session at the public library. According to Mr. Gordo, the teacher insisted on rendezvousing at the library despite the parents' expressed reluctance to convene in such a crowded, busy environment. Sure enough, after about an hour Paul became agitated and started shouting at the instructor. When the instructor admonished Paul to lower his voice, the young man became even more agitated and ran out of the building, pushing library patrons as he made his way out. Once outside the building he tried to run to his father’s car, and it was at this point that he knocked over the woman. Paul began crying when he realized he had injured the woman, but when her husband yelled at him, Paul became verbally abusive toward the husband. The district attorney insisted that a felony charge was appropriate, because Paul understood that his actions were wrong.

Before I go into my commentary, I’ll skip to the case’s resolution. My intention here is not to build suspense. On February 17, 2016, Paul's parents reached a plea agreement with the district attorney. The charges were reduced to a misdemeanor, Paul was placed on probation, and the Gordo family “made restitution” to the injured woman’s family (as they had been offering to do since the incident). Paul was given permission to leave California, and his parents planned to enroll him in a residential treatment program in Kansas for autistic adults with aggressive behaviors. I will not call this a happy ending, because nothing about this story is happy, but the outcome is probably as good as it could be. Paul is receiving therapy, the woman is receiving financial compensation, and, as Paul’s father observed, he will not have to sell his house to finance a defense for a criminal trial.

Commenting on this incident could go a few ways. The easiest target is the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. What was the teacher thinking? Paul had a history of aggressive behaviors at school. His parents had called the police at least five times in the past year because they feared for their safety at home. It turns out the instructor had not read Paul’s file. No wonder the Gordo’s are now suing the district.

Another relatively easy target would be the district attorney who insisted Paul’s behavior was not caused by his disability. Since he knew he had behaved badly, she reasoned, he should have and could have behaved differently. Obviously the D.A. has never lived with someone with autism.

A third group worthy of condemnation is the “commenters” on some of the newspaper articles who accused Mr. and Mrs. Gordo of failing in their role as parents. I understand these commenters’ justified disapproval of the decision to bring Paul to the library, but his parents tried to dissuade the teacher. They had already identified the program in Kansas for their son and started the application process well before July 14. They knew their school district was failing Paul; they knew he lacked the impulse control to be placed safely in such a stressful environment.

The yahoos of the world always make easy targets. But I am more interested in another facet of this story: neurodiversity activists’s (unsurprising) silence about the press coverage of Paul's assault. Jill Escher of the Bay Area Autism Society urged the D.A. to drop criminal prosecution: “It doesn’t happen because they intend to harm people or they’re bad people, but they’re miswired from the start.” Miswired. The word does not mean differently wired; it means incorrectly wired. Usually neurodiversity activists would be up in arms about a spokesperson for an autism organization using such language. I have heard no such outcry. For if Paul Gordo’s autism is not a disability, then he deserves the felony assault charge.

As I’ve been writing this blog for the last six months, I too feel less and less comfortable describing my daughter with words such as “miswired.” But I read about Paul Gordo, and I think he has a disability. And here is where the writing becomes so challenging, because it’s not clear where to go from here.

The feature v. bug debate (i.e., utilize strengths v. fix the problem) has enormously important ethical implications. I am grateful that such a debate exists, because it implies a growing recognition of the societal benefits of neurodiversity. I hope and expect this recognition to translate into respect for a wider array of people and into accommodation as a prudent choice rather than a burden.

Nonetheless, the debate is problematic. I am not sure if the problem is that the two sides are talking past each other because they “see” different populations when they conjure an image of neurological differences, or if the problem is that the question has been framed as such a stark dichotomy: Should researchers search for a cure? Yes or No. Is this a disability? Yes or No. Is any genetic abnormality a disability? Yes or No. Do we respect people for who they are? Yes or No. Do we wish our family members, as they exist, did not exist? Yes or No.

I do not want to answer these questions (except for a resounding No to the last question). My sense is that they are the questions one asks in the process of groping toward more thoughtful questions. I realize that my own writing at this point is not as clean as I’d like, but it reflects my thinking—messy. What are the right questions to ask? I welcome contributions that might lend some clarity.