By Adam Lodestone
[Image description: a young boy dressed in a white teeshirt and blue jeans torn at the knees crouches with his arms folded around his head, hands in his hair. He appears to be afraid or in distress. The space around him is small and dirty.]
The tiny room was completely dark and smelled like old wet mop. I crouched next to the large yellow mop bucket and felt it pivot on its wheels as I shifted my weight from one leg to another in an effort to comfort myself.
A broom handle pressed against my back. The air felt damp, which made me panic and feel slightly nauseous. I could not stop worrying that I would run out of air to breathe. My hand reached up to the door handle and jiggled it. The door was locked from the outside.
I tried knocking on the door to signal that I was asking to be let out, but no one answered and no one opened the door. I had no idea how long I had been in there.
I had already tried calling through the door. My tears had flowed and were already dried up. Crying, screaming, kicking at the door only resulted in threats spoken from the other side: “Keep that up, and you’ll only be in there longer,” the adult voice cautioned.
I was confused as to what I had done, exactly, to deserve being punished in this way. I wondered, in my head, how this was ok to do to a kid. I was terrified of the dark, as it was. At home, in my room, at night, I slept with a nightlight and the hall light was always left on for me. I couldn’t sleep otherwise.
There, in the dark of the broom closet, the fear clawed fiercely at my stomach. I started my rhythmic breathing ~ something I did not yet understand was a stim ~ the cadence of which helped ground me and calm me.
I put my head down on my kneecaps, hugged my knees with my arms, began rocking. The breathing and the rocking were helping me feel a little safer.
I could hear the shuffle of feet from the room outside. Voices of my classmates reached me— muffled like sounds heard underwater. They were lining up to go to lunch. I was not being let out so that I could join them.
Part of me was glad because my stomach hurt too much to eat and the activity of being in line and heading to the crowded, noisy cafeteria would have been too much for my raw senses.
Another part of me was angry and sad that I was being forced to skip a meal and wouldn’t be able to eat for another four (or more) hours, when I got home from school. Then, I would get in trouble for eating before dinner and for eating food that was not technically available for “snacking.”
This punishment had not had not happened before but it would happen again, another half a dozen times, during the course of that school year. I was five. And in Kindergarten.
Such seclusion would happen in other grades, at other schools, for the next three years. Teachers thought nothing of sticking “difficult” or “challenging” children into broom closets, utility rooms, or storage spaces in order to isolate them from their peers and to gain control over what they labeled “defiance,” “resistance to authority,” “manipulative temper tantrums,” “lying and making stuff up,” (this was their interpretation of sensory overload and the attendent physical symptoms of overwhelm), “stubbornness,” “rebelliousness,” and simply “being a bad egg/problem child.”
In some schools, seclusion was encouraged by the administration and even enshrined in school policy. There, special rooms were designated in which to isolate children. They often had one chair. Just a chair. Windows were covered. The lights were often very bright.
Somehow, these spaces were always somewhere noisy. It was like being ordered to sit in the middle of a busy construction site with floodlights aimed at you. Scary, totally overwhelming to the senses, lonely, and no one ever told you how long you were going to be stuck there.
At home, my mother– who was being coached to apply ABA therapy techniques in her parenting of me– used seclusion to try to coerce “cooperation” out of me. When I had a meltdown, when I cried over food textures, when I tried to avoid social gatherings or some excursion out into public spaces, and when I acted out– unable to bear the pressure to behave or communicate in certain ways, she would physically place me into the smallest spaces available and tell me to stand up inside of them, never sit, with my arms raised and my hands on the wall, being totally silent, until she came and got me.
I was told to “think about what I’d done (or said),” and my job was to report back to her what I understood about what I had “done wrong” and what I understood about how to do it “right” next time.
I was the only child of a single mother. Seclusion– in light of that fact– seems like a needless, pointless, and unnecessarily cruel option for exerting parental authority or trying to guide my outer expression, which was often a cry for help or accommodation of profoundly felt needs, and not “bad” or “willful” behavior.
This was during the mid-70s. I was diagnosed with ADHD at age five but a diagnosis of Autism would not come until my mid-20s. Being (what we now refer to as) neurodivergent and a highly emotionally-sensitive kid, at that, I was constantly being disciplined by adults at home and in school for “behaviors” that were deemed unacceptable.
Several times, I experienced being unable to control my body during Autistic meltdowns while at school. During those episodes, my classroom teachers (sometimes assisted by one or two other adults) would physically restrain me.
I was a *tiny* child.
I did not break across the 65 lb. threshold until I was nine years old. That one fully-grown adult could not contain me, even in a state expressed by flailing arms and legs, a rocking body, and my crying or screaming, is absurd.
I honestly feel, looking back on those moments from the place of my current understanding, that enlisting other adults was an intimidation move.
Sometimes, an adult would sit on me and restrain my arms with their hands until I became still. I am not using the words “calm down” because calm did not come for the rest of a day in which I experienced being isolated in a confined space or restrained.
Sometimes, straps would be used to tie my arms to my desk and once, my feet were strapped to the legs of my chair.
Aside from being humiliated in front of my peers, being restrained in these ways was traumatizing me.
I did not know that, at the time.
What I knew was that I was being given the very clear message that my body was not my own. What happened to my body was not up to me.
The living reality that I was not allowed any bodily autonomy and that any adult, at any time, could forcibly restrain me using whatever means they deemed fit, instilled in me the “truth” that I should abdicate the authority over my body to other people.
This would, eventually, lead me, as a young adult, to submit to physical assault and to be sexually abused and never even comprehend that I was being assaulted or raped/molested until much, much later.
Coming to awareness of what had actually been done to me triggered memories of early childhood sexual abuse at the hands of one of my mother’s boyfriends. Several times, in the middle of acute injury or chronic illness, I became a victim of medical malpractice due to not recognizing when I was being coerced, exploited, or mistreated.
My sense of a sovereign self was non-existent. The pattern of re-traumatizing experiences which was set in place as my “normal” caused me much suffering and pain and drove me, finally, to seek therapeutic counseling, at the age of forty-eight, in order to un-do all of the damage done to me in my vulnerable formative years.
The trauma that results from the use of restraints and the practice of seclusion is real and can be life-long. That trauma can be physical/physiological, psychological, emotional, and spiritual.
No part of the child remains untouched by the abuse visited upon them by adults who are supposed to be teaching, guiding, nurturing, caring for, and protecting them.
Treatments for the kind of PTSD that such abuse survivors have are not always readily available. Trauma-informed therapists are few and far between and their services are not always covered by insurance.
Even fewer professionals exist, within that specialized field, who are savvy to the nuances of working with Autistic or otherwise neurodivergent (ND) individuals. ND children are among those who are at the highest risk of being subjected to these cruel and abusive practices in school environments.
For the sake of my own inner child, for the sake of all of our most vulnerable children, I would love to see us work towards the day when no child is ever abused and traumatized in this way, ever again.
Restraint and seclusion are torturous practices; a violation of the most fundamental human rights of children. The fact that permanent injury, psychological damage, and even death have been the result of these practices reveals their barbarous nature and should communicate to us just how profoundly unsound, unsafe, and inappropriate they are.
I remember all too clearly the terror, the rage, the indignity, and the pain of being subjected to being forcibly restrained and isolated. For the sake of my own inner child, for the sake of all of our most vulnerable children, I would love to see us work towards the day when no child is ever abused and traumatized in this way, ever again. I need for us to achieve that. Our children need for us to win this battle.
Towards that end, I am sharing my story– here, on the ICARS website– to help illustrate why we need fundamental change in policy and procedure when it comes to how our children are treated in school environments.
ICARS is fighting the good fight on behalf of our children, internationally, in order to realize a world where our most vulnerable individuals are assured safety, respect, personal sovereignty, and bodily autonomy when in an educational, therapeutic, or institutional setting.
Such work can and will shift the current paradigm. Their labors assert the humanity and inherent value of our children, which should– and will be— enshrined in law.
No more terrified children in isolation. No more broken bones, bruises, scars, or friction burns. No more life-long trauma. No more deaths.