A California lawsuit is working its way through the Santa Clara County court system that left me pretty much speechless when I learned of it. Two families are suing a third, claiming their autistic son is a public nuisance. At first I thought this can’t possibly be true. Or serious.
But it is. And sadly, so are the neighbors.
A bit of background: Vidyut Gopal and Parul Agrawal, a Sunnyvale couple, have an eleven-year-old son diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Nearly two years ago, they were sued by the families living on either side of their house: Kumaran Santhanam and Bindu Pothen plus Robert and Marci Flowers. The suit claims the autistic child is a hazard to the other kids living on Arlington Court rising to the level of a public nuisance because he has exhibited aggressive behaviors consistent with his diagnosis. (According to the Autism Society, the behaviors in question are “nothing out of the ordinary” for those of us who live with the disorder.) The neighbors claim the autistic child’s presence on their street puts their children at risk and has lowered property values.
How this case has managed to stay in the court system for two years is beyond me. An autistic child lowers property values? More than the individual who doesn’t maintain his or her house and yard? More than a pedophile?
For starters, a nuisance is a condition, not a person. It’s an abundance of trash or a dog barking for hours. We don’t sue homeless people for being a nuisance, and we shouldn’t sue autistic children and their families either. Or any person who differs from the norm.
This lawsuit is the 21st Century equivalent of the Salem witch trials. What’s next? Burning autistic individuals at the stake because we fear them?
Rather than teaching their children tolerance and compassion, the neighbors on this street decided to punish and shame the disabled. Rather than helping a family fit in, they forced them out. Rather than asking what they could do to help, they made things much, much worse.
I wish this situation surprised me, but apart from the lawsuit, it doesn’t. Our society routinely punishes and shames the disabled for not fitting in. for requiring accommodations, for needing more help than most. We need to change this.
When I discussed this case with a friend, he said someone should sue the two families who filed the lawsuit. He said they did more to lower property values on their street than ten autistic kids. Because who wants to live near people who sue their neighbors?
He has a good point.
I find it interesting that whenever the media discusses this case, they feel compelled to point out that the child has been diagnosed with autism and is undergoing treatment. Well of course he is. All kids on the spectrum receive hours and hours of therapy each week. They also point out that he is medicated. Which makes me sad, because there really aren’t any medications for autism yet obviously the parents felt compelled to prove they were doing everything possible.
What the reporters don’t say is what the neighborhood kids were doing. How do we know they weren’t teasing or bullying the autistic child when he exhibited his so-called “menacing behavior?” Or simply touching him without permission? How come no one thinks to question their behavior? Why must the disabled child always be to blame?
The family with the autistic boy moved out of their home and now rent the house to others. Even if their child was a public nuisance (and I’m not saying he was), he clearly is no longer creating problems on Arlington Court. So why wasn’t the lawsuit dropped? One of the families who sued, the Flowers, moved a few months ago. And still the suit drags on.
This case presents a slippery slope, not only for families with autistic children, but for anyone who differs from their neighbors. Given the increased media attention this lawsuit has received of late, let’s pray it finally gets dismissed. Vidyut Gopal, Parul Agrawal, and their son have been punished long enough.
I hope their new neighbors, whomever they are, welcome them with open, and fully inclusive, arms.
Until next time,