Adam Wilson, age 21
Fear and Grief: Autism and Murder Rip East Texas Family Apart
by Dan Burns
The police found David Adam Wilson, a 21-year-old with autism, hiding in the tool shed beside his rural East Texas home. "We tried to read him his Miranda rights," Lt. Tony Dana told me in a telephone interview, "but he was extremely agitated. He didn't understand what we were saying. We terminated the interview immediately. Dad can't tell us what happened, because he's dead."
Adam Wilson is charged with murder. Normally sweet and calm, he'd reportedly been "drastically different" lately. Raging out of control on Monday, August 16, Adam threatened a family member and then begged for help. His family took him to the emergency room to have his medication adjusted. Allegedly, hours later, during an argument, he stabbed his father with a kitchen knife. The police found Mr. Wilson dead in a recliner. The prescription is still unfilled.
danburnsbenwater.JPG When I heard the story last Saturday I went packing for East Texas. I drove past Adam's house on FM 2039, a beautiful stretch of road that runs over the hills and through the piney woods between the villages of Overton and Arp. That night my 23-year-old autistic son Ben and his mom, Sue, camped and swam in the clear shady waters in Tyler State Park Lake, toes sinking in the soft lake bottom. How lucky I was to be at peace. Since Ben's diagnosis nearly two decades ago, we've been on a bumpy road towards healing. Had events taken a different turn, had we not received the help we needed, the person bleeding to death in that recliner, or hiding in that shed, alone, afraid, ashamed, and in despair, could have been me. Or Sue. Or Ben.
"Autism is literally ripping families apart in horrendous and tragic ways," said Teresa Conrick, in a comment posted in Age of Autism. "People are dying weekly -- nightmare accidents of drownings, traffic deaths, exposure to the elements, locked in a vans, inappropriate medications, psychosis, suicides and homicides." Parents killing their children. Now children killing their parents.
What's going on?
First, the incidence of autism has reached epidemic proportions. A 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has increased from 1 in 10,000 in the year 2000 to 1 in 110. That's about 1 in 60 boys. But that study is based on data from 2007. Anecdotal evidence from doctors who treat autistic children put the incidence today much higher -- one in thirty or even more. Ask an elementary school teacher and you may get an eye-popping answer.
Second, autism is still classified and treated as a psychiatric disorder, so it is "treated" with psychotropic drugs such as Valium, Ritalin, Thorazine, and Haldol, which do not heal anything and too often exacerbate the symptoms, including violent aggression, which they are supposed to mask. Treated as an immunological disease like allergies and ADHD, autism is sometimes reversible. But pediatricians aren't trained in appropriate biomedical treatments, and insurance usually doesn't cover them.
Third, the face of autism is changing. Eighty percent of these ASD kids are under age 22. Within five years, half a million young adults with autism will age out of the school system and spill into communities unprepared for them. A meltdown by a four-year-old in the library or grocery store is an inconvenience. A meltdown by 21-year-old is potentially lethal.
Fourth, after decades of stress, parents are snapping. Vicki Martin, RN, has a 14-year-old daughter with autism. "In my community," she says, "most of the adults with autism live at home with their parents. Many parents feel as if they have no choice. Kids are aging out of school, their primary support system. Most don't have jobs, and vocational and day-habilitation programs are not geared toward adults with autism. So these young adults are isolated in their homes under the care of their exhausted parents, many facing their own health issues related to the stress of 24/7 care for their severely disabled kids."
Lt. Tony Dana would not release the police report to me because the District Attorney hasn't seen it yet. In due time, though, there are questions that should and must be examined more closely in the public eye:
• What medications was Adam taking, and in what combinations? Did they have the potential for psychotic side effects?
• Was he receiving appropriate biomedical and behavioral treatment?
• How about Adam's dad? Was he suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? It is almost impossible to raise an autistic child without extended family support, yet many single parents do. Adam's mom had long ago moved on.
• What was his relationship with father? With the other family members? Did they love and care for Adam?
• What kind of support was the family receiving from friends and neighbors and community services?
Adam Wilson puts a face on a social issue that's likely to get worse before it gets better. But it is also a terrible personal tragedy. "Jail might not be the best place for Adam," said Lt. Dana, "but that's where he is for now." I pray for frightened, orphaned Adam and his grieving family.
Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., is Adult Issues Liaison for AutismOne and the author of Saving Ben: A Father's Story of Autism. Burns is developing the Autism Trust USA, modeled on The Autism Trust (U.K.) and focused on the creation of new campus communities where adults with autism can work, live and improve their skills and talents in a creative and supportive environment.