April is Autism Awareness month. The latest statistics indicate that as many as 1 in 50 boys (1 in 88 people in general) have a form of autism. To honor people like my charming, creative, and sensitive son, I salute the journey with all of its bumps and twists toward compassionate and enlightened treatment of disability.
This photo depicts a turn-of-the-century facility, prosperous from the outside. It has landscaped grounds, crisply painted exterior, a fine-graveled drive, all surrounded by a working farm. Its large and sprawling buildings appear well maintained. Who would guess that inside, in the recesses of the basement, that the indigent and people whom society regarded as "idiots" or “lunatics” were routinely chained by night in cells, and worked in farm labor by day?
What remains of this building, a buckling behemoth of brown brick, now lies less than two tenths of a mile from my home in upstate NY. Sadly it is not unique among its kind. Built in the mid nineteenth century, places like this promised refuge to the poor and mentally challenged. "Alms houses" like these flourished under the progressive, benevolent movement of the late 1800’s.
By 1880 almost 140 of these institutions had been built by private philanthropists across the US, such as the elaborately gardened Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, (pictured at right) incidentally which occupied the same grounds as the Salem witch trial of a prior century. It was hoped that a beautiful facility, inspiring vistas, exercise, and fresh air would rejuvenate the mind and spirit. This philosophy bore the term "moral treatment."
As private money dried up and populations came into complexes but never left, states assumed responsibility for the upkeep of these sprawling institutions and their residents. Staff-to-patient ratios fell from plumb, and the spa-like atmosphere gave way to labor camps and prisons. Facilities like these became "snake pits" and asylums, warehouses for populations as diverse as geriatrics, alcoholics, the mentally challenged, and the criminally insane.
Over the turn of the century and the subsequent decades, new options in treatment came and went, including psycho-surgery, electroconvulsive therapy (which is still being performed in certain cases), and the wave of antipsychotic drug therapies of the mid-20th century.
But during WWII, a breakthrough in humane treatment came through an unlikely source. Conscientious Objectors, pacifist men of religious conviction, were exempted from the war and relegated to civic duty. Many thousands of these men came to serve in these asylums and found deplorable, cruel and violent conditions. Under the influence of their unique blend of faith, compassion, and pacifism, they invented humane and dignified methods to manage the care of these patients.
In the last several decades has there been a move away from institutionalization to community based residential care facilities. Reporter Geraldo Rivera got his start as a young journalist by exposing the horrors at a Long Island asylum called Willowbrook. This media exposure, plus the move to include parental advocacy, brought about a more homelike and enlightened atmosphere for people with neurological and psychological issues. Finally, the introduction of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis brings hope that integration is possible for all individuals into society.
Kathleen L. Maher’s novella Bachelor Buttons releases May 1 as part of a Civil War sesquicentennial collection by Helping Hands Press. She won the 2012 ACFW Genesis contest, and finaled in several others since 2009. Represented by Terry Burns of Hartline Literary Agency, Kathleen blogs about New York State history. She and her husband live in a 100-year-old farmhouse in upstate NY with their three children, two Newfoundland dogs and a tuxedo cat.
Kathleen is offering a pdf copy of her novella to one lucky commenter today, plus an Irish goodie basket.