A young boy with autism faces an abstract wall of rainbow colors

The Coat Closet — An Autism Seclusion Story4 min read

As an autistic stu­dent, I was placed in seclu­sion in ele­men­tary school. The effects still haunt me.

Mrs. Bradshaw was her name. She was my first grade teacher at Mountain View ele­men­tary School in Broomfield, Colorado, and she was the strangest teacher that I’ve ever known. At breaks, she would line us up at the drinking foun­tain and have us all count to three, and that was as long as you got to drink.

When she cel­e­brated her birthday, she again lined us all up and had the entire class admin­ister spank­ings. And, if I as an autistic child couldn’t stay on task in class, she would put me in a coat closet in the class­room.

The coat closet was, as the name implies, the room where all of the kids hung their coats. The hangers were on one side of the room, and it was a tri­angle in shape. You could prob­ably fit about ten kids in there at a time.

The first in her class, she told me that she used that closet as a timeout room. I was coming from a spe­cial edu­ca­tion school into main­streamed edu­ca­tion. I’d been in timeout before and had been forced to face a wall while sit­ting in a chair– not the most fun thing in the world, but def­i­nitely not hor­rible.

The Vastness of the Dark

The idea of being put into a room by myself wasn’t absolutely nasty, but the first time I acted out in class, she put me in there. Then, she turned off the lights.

There I am, an autistic six-year-old in the dark. The only light I could see was the sliver from the class­room coming in from under the door. I still used a night light at home, and I imme­di­ately got dis­tressed. I began to whimper and cry. Upon hearing me, Mrs Bradshaw and the other chil­dren began to mock me with their own whim­pers and cries.

I went silent and shut down. Your mind can fool you in the dark, even as an adult. You can’t see the edges. You tend to think that there is more vast­ness than there actu­ally is. Imagine that as a 6‑year-old kid who, again, still sleeps with a night-light. I thought I might be lost for­ever.

I don’t remember telling any­body about this, not even my mom– and I told my mom every­thing. But what hor­rible thing must I have done to receive such an excru­ci­ating pun­ish­ment? I went in that coat closet more than once, but I never cried after that first time.

I could be many things, but I didn’t want to seem weak; after all, bul­lies were already starting to target me on the play­ground because of autism. I con­tinued to sleep with a night-light until I was close to 9 or 10 years old. It took me a long time to get used to the dark, and even today I don’t like being left alone for too long.

I still to this day don’t quite under­stand what the lesson was that I was sup­posed to be learning by being locked in a coat closet. It seems more about pun­ish­ment than about cor­rec­tive dis­ci­pline.

Hunger Pains

It wasn’t the worst dis­ci­pline that was used on me as a child in the 80s. Nothing can be more iso­lating than the seclu­sion I expe­ri­enced a couple years later– knowing that my other class­mates had eaten a full lunch, and I was so hungry that my stomach hurt.

In second and third grade, I was part of an emo­tional behav­ioral dis­order (EBD) class­room. They were using what they believed to be the most cutting-edge modal­i­ties to treat all dif­ferent types of behav­ioral dis­or­ders– including fasting– to help keep a stu­dent on task.

I was a skinny kid until I was about seven and a half or eight. That’s when the fasting started. In order to make sure I got all of my home­work done, espe­cially if I had not done it the night before, I was not given lunch until it was all com­pleted. Again, I was an autistic stu­dent in seclu­sion.

There were some days I didn’t get lunch at all, made to sit alone in the class­room, my stomach growling in protest, while my class­mates got their fill in the lunch room. I would finally get the work done and my food would be so cold it wouldn’t taste very good.

Autistic and having issues with impul­sivity, I would eat and eat when I got home until my stomach didn’t hurt any­more– and that’s when I started putting on weight. At present, I weigh around 370 lbs, and I’ve been over 300 pounds for most of my life.

Trust Issues

But being shut in that closet set me up for a great deal of fear and anx­iety and also a dis­trust of authority that I still carry to this day. Being denied food set me up for a life­time of overeating and using food as a tool to feel in con­trol and com­forted.

Typically, the excuse that teachers and admin­is­tra­tors use when you bring this stuff up to them after the fact is, “We didn’t know any better, we didn’t really under­stand what autism was!”

So they’ve ruined count­less kids just like me– espe­cially when autism is a part of the pic­ture. They caused us to sit through many expen­sive hours of therapy simply because they didn’t “know what they were doing.”

I hoped that edu­ca­tors were doing better now by their stu­dents, and espe­cially their autistic stu­dents. But they’re not. Seclusion is still used on autistic stu­dents all the time. The worst thing you can do to a child who already feels lonely is rein­force that belief as truth.

Mike Wise wrote this article as a com­mis­sion from ICARS. You can click here to leave him a tip.

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  1. “Mrs. Bradshaw was her name. She was my first grade teacher at Mountain View ele­men­tary School in Broomfield, Colorado, and she was the strangest teacher that I’ve ever known. At breaks, she would line us up at the drinking foun­tain and have us all count to three, and that was as long as you got to drink.”

    If I wasn’t an NYCer and I didn’t know that none of my ele­men­tary school teachers were named Bradshaw (there wasn’t so much as a Miss B), I’d be con­vinced that we went to the same school, because one of the teachers at my spe­cial ed teacher did that exact thing, give us three “Mississippi” counts to drink water from a park water foun­tain after we’d been playing at a play­ground in the spring or summer — the year after I had been totally deprived of water for 30 min­utes on a ferry field trip by a dif­ferent teacher who couldn’t be both­ered buying a water bottle from the ferry café, and I was parched the whole time and would have been deprived of water longer (again with a throat so parched I would’ve drunk any­thing that didn’t make me actu­ally phys­i­cally recoil) if there hadn’t been a handy garden hose at our des­ti­na­tion (Roosevelt Island, I think) for me to drink from.

    And this was ten years after your expe­ri­ence — in the 90’s.

  2. My fifth grade teacher, Miss Monichetti treated me in sim­ilar fashion. My so called problem behav­iour resulted in my desk being put in a huge box when the real problem was that I had moved from another school and I wasn’t adjusting to the change very well. That too was used against me and the bul­lying I was suf­fering was all my fault as well because this teacher said I invite trouble.

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