Autism and the God factor

Nick Buglione

Terrance Cottrell, Jr. was 8 years old when he was brought to his church for an exorcism to extract the demons supposedly responsible for his behavior. His arms and legs were wrapped in sheets, and adults held his limbs down for extra restraint. Ray Hemphill, a minister at the church, placed his hand across Cottrell’s forehead and lay across his chest as he performed the rite.

Hemphill’s 170-pound frame was too much for the tiny boy—no more than 70 pounds—to support. Cottrell writhed in pain and gasped for air through much of the two-hour service. He died of asphyxiation.

This was 2003. Cottrell’s behavior was the result of autism, not demons. Diagnosed with autism when he was 2, Cottrell was prone to acting out. He had the occasional meltdown and sometimes played rough with other kids. Though these are common symptoms of autism, members of the Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith, a small storefront church in Milwaukee, Wis., convinced the child’s mother, Patricia Cooper, they were the result of a demonic possession.

The church released a statement expressing sorrow for the death, while downplaying its role in the incident. “Terrance’s death is a great tragedy,” said David Hemphill, Ray Hemphill’s brother and pastor of the church. “However, it was not a malicious act on the part of the church.”

David Hemphill told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he thought the church “didn’t do nothing wrong (sic). We did what the book of Matthew said (in) chapter 12. All we did is ask God to deliver him (sic).”

Ray Hemphill was arrested and charged with recklessly causing bodily harm to a child. Prosecutors chose not to file murder charges because they thought it would be difficult to prove he intended to kill Cottrell. Hemphill was convicted, sentenced to two and half years in jail and was ordered to pay approximately $1,200 in restitution to the family.

In a society that sometimes views those with disabilities as a burden rather than a blessing, it’s hard for children with autism to gain acceptance in social circles. How they’ll be received in school, on the playground, or in their neighborhood is a serious concern for parents.

“It’s the anxiety you deal with when you enter a public place and you don’t know if you will be truly understood and welcome,” says Gloria Tressler, a resident of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and mother of a 26-year-old son with autism.

In trying times, Tressler, and other parents like her, often fall back on their faith. After all, if a child with a disability cannot be welcomed and nurtured in a house of worship—be it a church, synagogue or mosque—where will they ever be welcome?

But acceptance of autism in a religious congregations isn’t always a given.

“Isn’t a place of worship supposed to be a sanctuary for all who wish to practice their religious beliefs?” asks William Stillman, a Pennsylvania author with Asperger’s syndrome who has written eight books on autism, including two that deal with spirituality. “One of the things I’ve been seeing become more common is parents who are being led to believe by members of their religious denomination that they need to consider an exorcism or a deliverance ceremony (to rid their child of autism).”

Rick Ross is the founder of the Rick A. Ross Institute of New Jersey, a non-profit group devoted to studying religious cults. Though Ross doesn’t know of any other cases similar to that of Terrance Cottrell Jr., he did say that there are other religious circles in the United States that preclude medical care of any kind for children, including those with developmental disabilities.

“The Church of Scientology does not allow care by any mental health professional which would include autism,” Ross said.

The Church of Scientology was founded by author L. Ron Hubbard in 1953. According to its website, the religion provides methods to understanding life and increasing its members’ abilities to reach their fullest potential.

The church also has very strong opinions on mental health issues and developmental disabilities, such as autism. Tom Cruise, perhaps one of Scientology’s most vocal members, openly spoke out against psychiatry and the use of prescription medication to treat depression on NBC’s Today Show in 2005.

Scientology’s position on autism became widely publicized earlier this year following the tragic death of Jett Travolta, 16-year-old son to John Travolta, actor and Scientologist. At the time, rumors spread that Jett had autism but was never properly diagnosed because of his parents’ beliefs.

People with autism and other disabilities are considered to be “degraded,” but capable of curing themselves of the disorder by working on Scientology’s teachings, according to the church.

Jett died in January 2009 after he had a seizure in the bathroom of a hotel in the Bahamas, where he fell and hit his head on the bathtub. Autism experts believed the seizure was autism-related, as some 25 percent of teenagers with the disability suffer from them. Some even went so far as to say that Jett’s death could have been prevented if his parents allowed him to take prescription medication to control seizures, something the Church of Scientology forbids.

Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, denied their son exhibited symptoms of autism, instead blaming his problems on Kawasaki disease, a rare illness he contracted as a toddler. Kawasaki disease is characterized by an inflammation of the middle arteries. Its symptoms include high fever, swollen lymph nodes and rapid heartbeat.

It would be unfair, however, to say that organized religions have done nothing to be more inclusive to people with autism and other developmental disabilities. Lisa Jo Rudy, a writer and mother of a 13-year-old child with autism, has written a number of articles on autism and religion and says that most faiths are taking steps to welcome more families of children with autism.

“Everybody’s trying to be more accommodating,” Rudy said. “As these developmental disabilities become more common, if (religious organizations) are not more accommodating you will have a lot of people stop coming.”

Rudy believes that the trend is at least partly motivated by money. If a church, synagogue or mosque is more inclusive, then more families can attend its services, and more money will wind up in the collection plate.

The Christian, Catholic and Jewish faiths all have organizations that offer religious support for families of children with autism.

Gloria Tressler, a Lutheran, says that whether a congregation will be welcoming of a child with autism depends on its leadership. She and her son Nick have been embraced by their church in Yorktown Heights, but that’s not always the case in other churches. “Sometimes, no matter how hard you work to fit in it just doesn’t work out,” she said. “There’s a lot to be said about the leadership and what its attitude is.”

The Church of St. Joseph, a Catholic church in Bertha, Minn., obtained a restraining order to prevent the Race family from attending services in 2008. Adam Race, a 13-year-old boy with autism, his parents and four siblings had been attending Mass at the church since 1996.

In his petition for the restraining order, Rev. Daniel Walz wrote that Adam, over six feet tall and 225 pounds, is “extremely disruptive and dangerous.”

Believing it to be discrimination, the Race family fought the restraining order in court, though a county district judge upheld the ban.

In 2006, a 10-year-old Arizona boy with autism was denied taking Holy Communion by his Catholic church. Holy Communion is a ritual of the Catholic faith that commemorates the breaking of bread at Jesus Christ’s last supper.

Matthew Moran had trouble swallowing foods of certain textures, including the Communion wafer. The youngster had been taking Communion in a unique manner. With his father looking on, he would place the wafer in his mouth for a moment and then his father would take it out of his mouth and consume it himself.

Nick Moran, the child’s father, told the Arizona Republic newspaper that if he didn’t do this Matthew would spit the wafer out of his mouth. The Phoenix Diocese countered that they did not deny the child Holy Communion, but only disapproved of the manner in which he was partaking in the Sacrament.

Courtesy Spectrum Publications

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