Tacoma duct-tape incident shines light on difficult choice of restraining kids with autism

SEATTLE – We’re still hearing from many Q13 News viewers regarding Monday’s incident in Tacoma where a grandfather duct-taped his autistic grandson to reportedly keep him from running out into traffic.

Reaction ranged from sadness to frustration to outrage – and it all centers around the controversy about using restraints on children with autism who show signs of violence or doing things that could harm themselves.

And while Tacoma police say the grandfather may have broken the law, medical experts say restraints can work in certain situations – but it should be an option of last resort.

Calleen Peterson, of Federal Way,  is a mother of an 11-year-old boy who is on the autism spectrum and who, she says, sometimes acts out in ways that are violent.

“He has a really kind heart and he really, really wants to be good and to be a part of everything and have friends,” said Peterson.

"This is my daughter’s room,” she said, showing the bedroom door in their home. “It has multiple holes, and multiple divots in it where my son tried to attack her because she had a tablet that he wanted and could not have.”

The holes in the bedroom doors down the hallway show the striking reality for families struggling to cope with a child who can’t always control their actions.

“He can break my doors, he can hurt us and there’s not a whole lot that we can do, other than just continue trying to advocate for him and all the other families that deal with this,” she said.

Petersen shares her son’s story through a personal blog. It’s how she hopes to connect with other families going through similar issues.

“We aren’t trained in therapy, we aren’t trained in how to do this,” she said. “We’re just parents.”

Tacoma police say the boy from Monday’s incident was placed in the care of other family members.

“It’s child abuse and no child should be handled that way,” Tacoma Police officer Loretta Cool said shortly after the incident Monday night.

The grandfather who used duct tape to secure the child told police he was trying to keep the boy from running into traffic. Wandering is something roughly half of children on the spectrum do, but Cool, the police officer, said the grandfather could face charges.

“Yes, this family could be charged with some sort of assault against this child,” said Cool. “There’s also the possibility, depending on what the investigation reveals, that maybe assisting them in getting better care for taking care of the child.”

Experts dealing with kids on the spectrum say people who care for them should learn the warning signs and de-escalation techniques from doctors and therapists. They also say using restraints should always be an option of last resort, and should only be temporary.

Caregivers could also seclude an unruly child alone in a room – it’s an attempt to give them time to calm down.

Petersen says families with a loved one with autism need more resources and better education on how to keep everyone safe.

“He is loving and he really, really wants to be good and do what you want him to,” she said, “But the behaviors get in the way.”

Cool told Q13 News the grandfather connected to Monday’s case is under investigation for "unlawful imprisonment." Detectives will send their case to the prosecutor, who will decide if charges will be filed.