By James Cassar
I was thirteen when I met Zach and for some reason, he always went for my legs.
We were both veteran outpatients at Kids in Motion Pediatric Therapy Services, a private center converging all points on the disability spectrum. Zach was eight years old at the time he first lunged at me. Both he and I had a mutual occupational therapist, Brian, who translated this gesture as a jumbled display of Asperger's syndrome. Like my own cerebral palsy – a disability I saw manifest in degrees of severity – Aspergers syndrome can take on a wide variety of forms, many of which center around difficulty expressing oneself in most social situations. That much was clear: there was a barrier between Zach and I which could be toppled with patience, for I understood the pressures of both being growing up with a disability and negotiating being a young boy in general.
Through our interactions, I not only learned about scores of new Pokemon but also the differences in our development. My therapy sessions with Brian usually involved sweating my way through a fifteen-minute mile or a seven-piece obstacle course which spanned the length of the clinic's main area. Zach also had to control his energy and uneasy temper via these endurance exercises, but instead of being weighed down by his own tiredness when completing an obstacle course, Brian would squash him with a large rubber cushion. Zach would usually scream while being flattened. When his throat stopped burning and his tears stopped flowing, I'd normally ask Brian why further pressure was exerted on this new friend of mine.
Asperger's Syndrome is also sometimes nestled under the autism umbrella and because cases of Asperger's, autism, and cerebral palsy can vary, occupational therapists are left to combine different techniques from different rehabilitative schools of thought. In a 1992 essay published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, noted autism activist Temple Grandin wrote that “occupational therapists have observed that a very light touch alerts the nervous system, but deep pressure is relaxing and calming.” To test this, I noticed Brian would grab Zach's shoulders to test his reflexes and most of the time, the sudden movement would be answered with a cry of discomfort. The deep pressure exercise Brian instituted – slamming him with that infamous pillow – would also bring Zach within an atmosphere of uneasiness. It didn't always cause him to cry. Temple was right in her studies to assert that deep pressure can be (not necessarily is) relaxing and calming. Again, Asperger's runs along a spectrum, and not all remedies can cure all ills.
Another experiment regarding Temple's deep pressure theory came with her invention of a “hug machine.” It employed the same concept: an air compressor supplies a seated person with even spurts of a comforting force while they remain between two V-shaped boards. Grandin implemented this device into her own anxiety-combatting routines and supposed its mainstream adoption may allow those living with Asperger's to receive the comfort they can't receive from others, usually due to difficulties with juggling social cues and their uses.
Kayden Clarke documented his journey through understanding and articulating the challenges bundled with Asperger's, but found solace in Samson, a rescue service dog. During what the Huffington Post labeled a “meltdown,” Samson can be seen calmly remaining at Clarke's side, offering him silent, but loyal comfort.
Notice in this video how the animal's large frame is positioned: there's no space in between him and his owner. In fact, the proximity of the animal and Kayden might be acting as makeshift deep pressure. Kayden's hands begin grasping and petting Samson's ears, and when they move away to adjust his glasses, Samson nuzzles his head in between Kayden's bent knee and chest. The head, therefore, looks to me like some noble attempt at becoming a hug machine, as dogs are often characterized to do anyway.
I didn't know all this information off the top of my head. Besides my initial understanding as an early teenager, I wasn't aware of deep pressure's emotional and sensory benefits until after hours of research. What can be gathered from my anecdote and my analysis is this: Asperger's lies at the intersection between mental health and a cognitive disability, two different, but closely linked sectors of the human experience.
Kayden Clarke, like Temple Grandin, was an outspoken figure. His video diaries created a narrative which overlapped the marginalized experiences of both the disabled and transgender communities. His last entry, “Must fix autism before I start T.B.s” indicted the terrible mental health system present in his native Arizona. What was set in place was a set of codes built on ignorance, as Clarke explained he was in the process of suing his clinic for refusing to treat his myriad of mental health disorders – post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, bipolar disorder – uncomfortably swirling alongside an autism spectrum disability. Kayden's attempts to secure gender therapy were also fruitless. Before Kayden could secure testosterone, he would have to “fix” his Asperger's “disease.”
Kayden's story lies at, thus, a frustrating three-way stop between untreated mental health, a misunderstood and (frankly) mocked cognitive disability as well as a denial to transition into a more comfortable gender identity.
Even the stories which broke the heartbreaking, unfortunate news that Kayden had been murdered by Mesa, Arizona police used his legal name instead of the one which I've used here. Esteban Flores, a spokesperson for the Mesa Police Department, recounted the incident using the female pronoun. One of three officers at the scene was trained in crisis intervention and was readying a “less-than-lethal” bean bag gun to subdue her, a person hindered by suicidal thoughts. Kayden kept lunging with the blade, causing them to shoot with their lethal guns, even though two officers were armed with Tasers. Flores continued: “as you know, it takes a while to get all the information.” The “information” they were lacking at the time surrounding her struggles with mental health and Asperger's. (I've emphasized their error in mis-gendering him so as to highlight just another way the entire situation was misread by those handling it.)
Linda Deede, a friend of Kayden's, was the one to call the police. Now she wishes they'd just have backed off. In another video diary, Kayden had outlined his mental health issues, including a documented “suicide by cop” attempt. Kayden hadn't asked for that to reoccur. His videos remain as a reminder of his self-awareness, anger and comfort confiding in a sea of strangers. Had his own friend understood that was his communication venue of choice, we may be awaiting another of Kayden's YouTube updates, possibly with a different tone.
Alas, what we're left with here is a deep miscarriage of what “crisis intervention” actually means. Why are only one of three dispatched officers at a distressing scene trained in this? Why were their methods of crisis intervention not used? A U.S. Department of Justice report filed in 2013 stated less than ten percent of bean bag rounds fired from ten feet or less broke bones. That seems much less than the 100% success rate of proper rounds fired from x feet breaking stories and in a grander sense breaking a sense of journalistic transparency. Stories of these murders are more likely going unreported save for in a smaller, shaken circle. Therefore, there isn't a number you can really place on police-aided death in our country today, and there definitely isn't a number you can pinpoint regarding a gun's firing distance. The officers which murdered Kayden were not wearing body cameras. If an intervention requires two parties, why isn't there a third party analyzing the problems associated with these “crisis interventions” via recorded video or tagged audio? One might take Flores' statement regarding Kayden's death and not fully grasp the thoughts rattling in those officers' heads. One won't definitely get any closer to clarity when assured by a mediated, biased correspondent instead of a raw video feed. Their viewpoints are going to, by nature, correspond to that of the organization which booked their media appearance. The lack of tangible evidence and reliance on accounts from one side of the story dwarfing the other is a glaring issue. Every officer needs a lesson in “crisis intervention” and every “crisis intervention” needs an associated body cam. I won't drop the scare quotes until this stops scaring and harming marginalized communities.
While I can't speak for the trans community and their hurdles, Kayden's disability and its subsequent treatment (or lack thereof) is concerning. Alongside some much-needed additions to police dispatches, it's also imperative to consider a force-wide lesson in the nuances and larger dispositions packaged with various disabilities. Not all disabilities are visible like my limp. Not all cognitive disabilities are accompanied with an easy-to-see tic. The invisibility of some conditions makes them vague and ominous to those armed with a basic understanding of what is considered “dangerous” behavior. It's time we answer with a different kind of deep pressure. I'm not here to instill comfort, I'm here to fight for a needed change.
Until we navigate the strenuous world of disability culture as a larger population, there's no limit to the fear and the darkness that can suffocate our world's brightest and silenced minds. It might have to start with patience, but any pause is more powerful than a pulled trigger.
James Cassar is an outspoken disabilities and mental health advocate. He's also a freelance music journalist. Cassar's work often deals with the intersection between alternative music and people with physical and/or mental disabilities. You can read Cassar's work on publications such as Alternative Press and PropertyOfZack. You can follow Cassar on Twitter at @getcerebral.
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