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New Home Prescribed Mom, Experts Agree: Autistic Son Shouldn’t Be In Mental Hospital

What should be done with Michael DeRyan?

He’s a 36-year-old man with autism, shuffled from one family home to another, one drug to the next, in and out of hospitals.

He once composed songs on the piano, won art awards and tested with the IQ of a genius. He is now confined in a mental ward at Eastern State Hospital.

His mother, Judy DeRyan, 65, is fighting yet another battle in a war she’s been losing.

This time, she’s trying to get her son out of Eastern, where he was injured last month when staff members restrained him as he tried to leave the ward.

Everyone - even Eastern’s superintendent - says DeRyan doesn’t belong at the hospital, where he’s lived for almost 15 months.

DeRyan is one of 3,800 regional clients of the state Division of Developmental Disabilities, an agency that aims to house disabled people in the least restrictive places possible. Many say that a state mental hospital isn’t appropriate for an autistic patient.

“I would say it’d be like putting a cork in a tea kettle,” said James Perkins, a division case manager who declined to talk about DeRyan specifically. “A state hospital would be the extreme opposite in my opinion of what a person with the diagnosis of autism needs.”

Autism is a severe developmental disorder that affects about one child in 1,000.

People with autism sometimes stare into space for hours, throw uncontrollable tantrums, shy away from touch and show no interest in people, even their parents. They rock back and forth and pursue repetitive behavior with no obvious purpose.

They often don’t respond well to demands, and they like to move about freely.

DeRyan was sent to Eastern because he was considered dangerous after he lashed out in an adult family home. His mother said he was supposed to be there only a short time, while social workers looked for a better home.

He’s still there.

State workers like Perkins say they are aware of people like DeRyan but can’t help them without more money. At Eastern, DeRyan’s tab of $356 a day is picked up by the state’s Mental Health Division.

Outside the hospital, his bills would be covered by the cash-strapped Division of Developmental Disabilities. DeRyan’s care would probably cost from $50 to $300 a day, and the division doesn’t have the money.

“It’s a continual dilemma,” said Laurie Zapf, the division’s regional administrator. “Michael is one of many, many people who need to move on.”

Judy DeRyan says she can’t provide the 24-hour care her son needs. She suggests possible solutions: create a new group home geared toward autistic adults with the help of the Health Improvement Partnership, or place her son in the home of Rhoda Behrens.

Behrens is a former president of the Washington Autism Society who has adopted four children with special needs. She wants to take in DeRyan.

She has a room picked out for him. She has people willing to help.

Judy DeRyan’s struggle has taken on new urgency. On June 20, she rushed to visit her son after learning that staff members physically restrained him after he tried to leave the ward without permission.

His face was a map of bruises and scrapes.

Eastern Superintendent C. Jan Gregg said such a “physical containment” is typical, but the bruises aren’t. An outside investigator will look into the incident.

It’s also being investigated by the Washington Protection & Advocacy System, a private nonprofit organization created to protect the rights of people with disabilities.

“It’s our agency’s position that this kind of injury should never occur, no matter how violent or out of control the patient may be,” said Michael Smith, the organization’s lawyer handling DeRyan’s case.

Judy DeRyan got a court order last month that says Eastern and the Division of Developmental Disabilities should work together to decide where her son should live.

A meeting is planned the week of July 21, but until then, DeRyan will stay in Eastern.

“I really would want to see this young man in a place that’s appropriate for him,” said Gregg, adding that Eastern had no programs for autistic patients.

Some people with autism do well in the world. They are remarkably gifted, with islands of ability in areas like art and mathematics.

Some aren’t as successful. Joseph Behrens, 16, doesn’t talk and smiles so big that his eyes are slits. He paces back and forth in his adoptive mother’s living room, smiling, occasionally laughing and drumming his hands to an unheard beat.

Rhoda Behrens adopted Joseph and another child with autism. She thinks DeRyan would be happy in her home because she knows him and knows autism.

As an infant, DeRyan sometimes didn’t want to be cuddled. He stiffened and held himself apart, wearing a poker face. Michael didn’t speak until he was 3.

He had trouble socializing at school. He tested with an IQ of 160 - well above genius level - when he was 11. He excelled at natural sciences. But he talked in circles and couldn’t leave a subject.

Originally diagnosed with juvenile schizophrenia, DeRyan drifted in and out of hospitals. He was placed on drugs. He first went to Eastern in 1985. He was released four years later, only after another patient pummeled him, breaking his nose.

DeRyan lived in an adult family home in Springdale from 1989 to 1993, but his mother decided he should be moved into town for more activities and more services. He then drifted through a series of homes, none of which worked, and in and out of Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Finally, Sacred Heart discharged DeRyan to Eastern State Hospital almost 15 months ago.

Friends of DeRyan and advocates for people with autism cringe at the thought of him in Eastern.

Pat Garvin’s 30-year-old daughter is autistic, and she lives in a home with three other people with developmental disabilities. Pat Garvin knows Michael and Judy DeRyan and wishes he’d be placed in the community.

Said Garvin: “I’m mystified by his treatment.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo