Autism Awareness Month: In the schools

Dennis A. Brown II

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series. Published during Autism Awareness Month, the series focuses on how serious the strain of autism can be because it can lead to some serious or tragic consequences. Part 2 addresses abuses of children in the Autism Spectrum Disorder in schools.)


Before my diagnosis of autism, I was in special education classes for behavioral disorders from the second grade through the fifth grade in Louisville, Ky., and Dearborn. For the first grade I attended a school that specializes in traditional education. My teacher had no specialized training for children with behavioral disorders, therefore little ability to recognize or be especially sympathetic. After a meeting with my parents, a school psychologist became my “shield.”

A March 4, 2016, article from says in a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Education and the ACLU’s August 2009 report “Impairing Education: Corporal Punishment of Students with Disabilities in U.S. Public Schools,” 18.8 percent of students who were abused by teachers and administrators in the 2006-07 school year, including by corporal punishment, had a disability. Texas had the most in that same school year with 10,222 out of 49,157 students being abused as having a disability. A 2009 report from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates says that children with autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder were more likely to be abused than others. The problem is some teachers & administrators claim immunity. Here are some incidents:

On December 9, 2016 Anthony Corona, an 18-year-old student with autism at Bright Futures Academy of Riverside, CA, was in an altercation with another student & employees on a school bus. Corona was restrained to the point where he lost consciousness. He was given CPR and was taken to St. Bernadine’s Hospital where he died from positional asphyxia. The death was ruled a homicide. A coroner’s report also said that Corona’s mental condition contributed to his death. Corona’s aunt and grandmother hired an attorney.

On October 7, 2014 at Gardner Leadership, Law & Government Academy of Lansing, MI, substitute teacher Lester Duvall physically abused a 12-year-old male student with autism and ADHD. It happened as he went to use another pencil sharpener after Duvall ordered him to be seated. Duvall grabbed and threw him on the floor and into a bookcase. The student suffered a concussion, bruising, depression and anxiety. Duvall was charged with misdemeanor fourth-degree child abuse, but pled guilty to disorderly conduct. He was fined $300 and left the Lansing district, but could still teach in other districts. A lawsuit was filed a year later citing negligence and that Duvall has had an alleged pattern of abuse.

On Feb. 19, 2013, at Pine Ridge Elementary School in Clermont, Fla., teacher’s aide Jacqueline Zuniga was being punched and pinched by a boy with autism. After scolding and threatening him, Zuniga grabbed him and flung him several feet into a wall. The impact caused him to lay motionless for about 30 seconds. He also suffered a laceration on his head. Zuniga was arrested and charged with child abuse and was suspended without pay, but it’s assumed that she was terminated.

On Feb. 17, 2012, in Cherry Hill, N.J., Stuart Chaifetz gave his son Akian, who has autism, a recorder after seeing him upset upon returning home from Horace Mann Elementary School on several occasions. What the recording caught irked Stuart. Teacher Kelly Altenburg and two aides were allegedly verbally abusing Akian and having inappropriate conversations during class which triggered Akian’s angry outbursts. One aide was removed from the district while the other resigned. Altenburg was placed on paid leave, but returned to work in 2014 courtesy of some loopholes including teacher tenure and a state law saying that the recording violated wiretapping laws. In a 17-minute YouTube video Stuart Chaifetz says any teacher who abuses or mistreats special needs children should face serious consequences.

As stated in Part 1 last week (, preventing these incidents is difficult because autism itself is very difficult to diagnose, especially if attention deficit disorder and ADHD become contributing factors. There needs to be more schools for every age group that specialize in children with autism. There also needs to be more teachers who are specially trained on dealing with children with autism.

(Next week: Mistreating workers with autism and denying them an opportunity can be very costly.)

(Dennis A. Brown II is originally from Louisville, Ky., and currently lives in Dearborn. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in February 2007 at age 35. He’s a former radio broadcaster and currently works for a private security company. In addition to writing commentaries, he records public service announcements about autism awareness for non-commercial radio stations based in metropolitan Detroit area schools.)