Mary Schmich: ER Officers Respond to Autism

Thanks to the Tribune’s Mary Schmich for bringing much deserved attention to hospital security staff who were ready to help.

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by Mary Schmich
2/6/2019

Column: A man with autism, behaving violently, winds up in the ER. The officers on duty respond — by singing and dancing.

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Ellen and Robert Hughes expected the worst when they took their son, Walker, who had been on a violent rampage, to Loyola University Medical Center’s ER. But they were inspired by public safety officers, led by Sgt. Keith Miller, left, who calmed him down by singing and dancing.

On the way to the hospital that cold evening, Ellen Hughes sat in the passenger seat of the car, her husband at the wheel, while their son, Walker, sat in back pulling her hair and trying to strangle her.

It had been an awful day. Walker, who is 6-foot-3, has autism and is ordinarily gentle, had been rampaging through the Hughes’ small Chicago home, suffering, they would later learn, from a “paradoxical reaction” to a medicine that was supposed to calm him down.

He had chased his parents through the house, tackled his father to the ground, even bitten him through his winter coat hard enough to hit flesh.

Get to the hospital, a doctor said.

They obeyed, but as they passed the entry doors of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Walker bit his mother’s hand, hard. She screamed, and a phalanx of men in uniform swarmed in.

“Picture it,” she says, “here’s this fragile little mom, the aged parents. Walker’s huge and he’s violently attacking me and suddenly there’s all these cops on him. I’m thinking, ‘My God, they’re gonna kill him.’ ”

They weren’t technically cops. They were the hospital’s public safety officers, but Hughes knew how wrong things could go between a big, violent man with autism and a bunch of uniformed men wearing badges, bulletproof vests and stun guns.

And then things went an entirely different way.

Walker Hughes is 33. His parents, Robert and Ellen, have spent almost that many years in and out of hospitals, trying to help their son while also trying to help others understand autism. In one hospital, Walker was pinned to the floor, screaming. Once, he was handcuffed to a bed, and ever since, even getting him onto a gurney was likely to be a fight.

At Loyola, Ellen prepared for the fight.

“I’m scared to death and I’m bleeding,” she says, recalling that day in late December. “I’m sitting there sadder than I’ve ever been in my life and I hear this game starting up.”

In the cubicle where Walker had been taken for tests and medication, he kept bolting off the examination table. Instead of brutally restraining him, though, the officers tried a different approach each time he jumped up.

As Ellen described the game in a recent blog post:

“Walker gets up!” they cheered.

They helped him sit back down.

“Walker sits down!”

And he did.

“Walker scoots back.”

He did.

“Walker lies down.”

Yes!

For two and a half hours, the officers coaxed and cajoled. They danced. They sang children’s songs. They sang James Brown. They harmonized on the “Mr. Rogers” theme song.

“Walker loved it,” Ellen says. “He was kind of mystified and charmed and started smiling. They were men his size who considered him a real person. It’s scary when people don’t think you’re a real person. You have autism and you can’t talk — but you’re a person. It’s scary to be treated like a lion from the zoo. We’ve been to the doctor and the hospitals a million times and I’ve never seen anything like these guys.”

What Walker experienced might have been different if not for Sgt. Keith Miller, who was on duty at Loyola that night.

“First of all,” he said, when I talked to him Tuesday, “I am the parent of an autistic child myself.”

His experience with his son, who is 14, prompted him to seek training in how to handle patients with autism who arrive at the hospital. Now he helps train other officers. One thing he teaches is that no two people with autism are the same. He found the key to working with Walker, he says, when Walker mentioned Mary Poppins.

“Right then and there, I knew how to deal with it,” he said. “We started singing ‘Mr. Rogers.’ I did ‘Sesame Street’ voices. We made a game. Clapped, cheered. We stayed there for two and a half, three hours. Very few things were more important than Walker.”

Miller says that police and other public safety officers are waking up to the need for such training.

“I think it’s something that’s new, getting bigger and bigger,” he said, “considering that the diagnosis of children with autism is rising.”

After that night, it took Ellen Hughes a few weeks to collect herself well enough to post something about it on social media. She also wrote the hospital asking it to relay her thanks to the officers.

“You can’t train that kind of spirit,” she says.

Walker is getting good care now and recovering from the wrong medication. Ellen’s hand still hasn’t healed from the bite, but something in her was restored that night.

mschmich@chicagotribune.com

Twitter@MarySchmich 

 

 

Tough, Sweet Cops

Entry by Walker’s mom, Ellen
January, 2019

As a dedicated Law & Order viewer, I’m very familiar with the good cop-bad cop bit detective teams use to wrangle the truth from a perp. But now, in real life, I have witnessed the amazing miracle a team of big-hearted police officers can work on a guy in serious trouble by using a good cop-good cop routine.

Hit with a severe paradoxical reaction to a med meant to calm him, Walker, our 33-yr-old gentle son with autism, suddenly was raging through the house, shouting, striking out. We called his psychiatrist and quickly headed off to a hospital for help. (Driving in the pouring rain in rush hour traffic with Walker beside himself, shouting and fighting, but I digress.)

The moment we entered Loyola Medical Center Emergency Room’s first sliding door, Walker grabbed me and bit my hand. Hard. Blood, a scream. And lots of police officers all at once.

walker-keithcopgroupLike all autism parents, especially those with jumpy, nonverbal, 6’3” guys like our son Walker, my husband Robert and I can easily imagine how things often go very wrong very quickly when the police get involved.

And here they were suddenly, a bunch of them with bullet-proof vests, badges, taser guns in holsters. About 5 grabbed Walker, held him, while another one took me to a nurse. We were reunited at Walker’s ER cubicle, with Walker now surrounded by 7 large officers, led by Sergeant Keith Miller.

Robert and I, sitting nearby, were overwhelmed with fear, sadness, you name it. Walker was contained. He needed help – blood tests, an EKG, calming meds – but was too wild and upset to accept it.

Then, things changed. When Walker jumped up from the examining table to escape, the policemen instantly turned it into a game.

“Walker gets up!” they cheered.
They helped him sit back down.
“Walker sits down.”
And he did.
“Walker scoots back.”
He did.
“Walker lies down.”
Yes!

“High Fives All Around.”
And, amazingly, Walker smiled and High Fived every one of them.

Immediately, he tried to escape again.

So, the routine was repeated. Over and over again, more and more happily. Smiles all around, a bigger and bigger smile on Walker’s face. If an officer stepped out to handle some other problem, the rule was he had to get his High Five upon returning. Walker still wanted to leave. But he loved the game. Loved the officers.

Then, I heard them all sweetly singing.  “Would you be mine, won’t you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor.” Even a little harmony in there. Walker was happy and relaxed. After a few more children’s songs, there came some James Brown and plenty of other cool stuff. Walker was not restrained, not bruised, not scared. He was befriended and delighted.

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All seven officers stayed right there helping Walker for a couple of hours. Containing him, befriending him. Sergeant Miller, who clearly was essential to this success, dealt with issues throughout the hospital through his shoulder communications device while staying right by Walker’s side. Other officers left, arrived. The medical tests became fun and easy. Walker’s tension eased because he had friends, big guys like him, who liked him.

Later on, we were down to one officer as we waited overnight for an ambulance to nearby Riveredge, a psychiatric hospital, for extended meds reduction.

An ambulance. Before now, Walker had never been willing to:
1) get on a stretcher,
2) be strapped down,
3) get in an ambulance.

But the friendly police officer suggested it, and so this was fun, too.
It’s amazing what a team of highly-trained, combat-ready, loving policemen can do.

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Afterwards, Walker on his way in an ambulance.

Our 2018 Appeal

Walker for 2018 appeal

We’re Asking for Your Help!

As 2018 ends, please consider a donation to Clearbrook, the Chicago nonprofit which makes Walker’s life possible.

This has been the toughest year of Walker’s life. In February, Walker contracted a second major auto-immune disorder which intensified every nasty aspect of his autism. Only with the steadfast, loving support of the Clearbrook staff throughout this terrible ordeal has our guy finally started to smile again. During the darkest days, they kept the porch light on, welcoming him back home.

Clearbrook, with over 50 locations in the Chicago area offering services including group homes, vocational programs and in-home care, makes life – and smiles – possible for Walker, and for thousands of physically and mentally disabled people like him.

You can use this link to donate to Clearbrook:

https://www.clearbrook.org/2018holidayappeal/#give

And please note Walker’s name when you do.

Thanks very much!!

Walker & Giving Tuesday 2017

walker-gas-station-2-3
This holiday season, please consider a gift to Clearbrook, the agency which provides Walker with a happy, meaningful life.

In Illinois – which ranks 49th in funding for disability services – Clearbrook makes life possible for over 8,000 people with severe autism and other developmental disabilities, including our son Walker.
Clearbrook can only do this with your support.

NOTE: On Giving Tuesday – Nov.28 – every donation to Clearbrook will be generously matched by the Coleman Foundation.

TO DONATE on Tuesday, Nov.28 or ANYTIME:  CLICK HERE.
(And please type WALKER in the tribute box!)

How does Clearbrook help Walker?
Watch: 
The Walker Hughes Story

THANK YOU for helping Walker, and many others,  live a healthy, happy life!
Robert & Ellen

DeVos: Disaster for the Disabled

All autism parents should be alarmed and appalled by Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos. The person the Washington Post refers to as a “billionaire dilettante” knows nothing about, and appears totally unconcerned about, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the bedrock of all our children’s hopes for a real education.

Betsy DeVos apparently ‘confused’ about federal law protecting students with disabilities

By Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post, 1/17/2017

devos-photoBetsy DeVos displayed at best confusion and at worst a lack of knowledge about a key federal law involving students with disabilities during her Tuesday confirmation hearing before a Senate panel that will vote on whether she should become President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked DeVos about the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to provide children with disabilities a “free appropriate public education” and governs how states and public agencies provide various services to millions of students.
Link to full article

Walker & Giving Tuesday 2017

walker-gas-station-2-3
This holiday season, please consider a gift to Clearbrook, the agency which provides Walker with a happy, meaningful life.

In Illinois – which ranks 49th in funding for disability services – Clearbrook makes life possible for over 8,000 people with severe autism and other developmental disabilities, including our son Walker.
Clearbrook can only do this with your support.

NOTE: On Giving Tuesday – Nov.28 – every donation to Clearbrook will be generously matched by the Coleman Foundation.

TO DONATE on Tuesday, Nov.28 or ANYTIME:  CLICK HERE.
(And please type WALKER in the tribute box!)

How does Clearbrook help Walker?
Watch: 
The Walker Hughes Story

THANK YOU for helping Walker, and many others,  live a healthy, happy life!
Robert & Ellen

Reading at Truman College

Upcoming Reading – All Welcome!

2 pm, Tuesday, Sept. 27
Truman College Library
1145 W. Wilson Ave., Chicago

Truman Distinguished Professor Robert Hughes will discuss his new book, Walker Finds A Way – Running into the Adult World with Autism – providing an up close and personal look at autism in real life. Reading, book signing, Q & A.