A trial  begins in California this week that has my attention. It’s not one that the national news media are covering, and the outcome will go unnoticed by most. A young man, James Torrey Hill, is facing a jury trial in the Superior Court of California , accused of killing a young autistic man, Matthew Paul Finnigan, in the fall of 2010.
The Monterey Herald  reported testimony from police officers given at Hill’s hearing in February 2011. (Stories on the incident are available via archive search.) “Officer Jeff Gibson testified Hill answered the door [to his apartment] wearing blood-splattered shorts. At the end of the hall, he saw Finnigan crouched over, covered in blood, saying Hill had stabbed him without warning or cause,” the Herald story notes. The newspaper article goes on to recount testimony indicating that in Hill’s statement to police he said that he had been having hallucinations and had “been dealing increasingly with murderous urges in the weeks leading up to the attack.” Finnigan would die from stab wounds after being airlifted to a San Jose hospital. Hill went on to plead not guilty.
I am particularly interested in this story for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is that the victim was an autistic adult. At the time of Finnigan's death, both men were enrolled in a postsecondary program for students with disabilities called College Living Experience (CLE). College Living Experience has a number of centers across the country—Finnigan and Hill attended one in Monterey, California. And at the time of the incident, I was the Director of the CLE center in Rockville, MD.
When I learned about the fatal stabbing at CLE-Monterey, my heart dropped. It shook me to my core. I know that my first response was as a parent. How must it feel to send your son to a support program, only have him to die allegedly at the hands of another participant in that program? My next response, frankly, was to be thankful it hadn’t happened at my center, on my watch. I felt terrible for the families involved, but my heart also went out to the CLE-Monterey staff and students who were dealing with such a tragedy.
And then I started to have other thoughts. I started to think about the admissions process at programs serving young adults with autism. What many people in special education and adult service admissions will tell you is that it can be difficult to accurately assess comorbidities. Many young adults with learning disabilities and autism have mental health struggles, due either to environmental stressors like bullying or from comorbid conditions like anxiety, depression, or mood disorders. What you see on the surface is not always what you get. In addition, some families do not include a complete mental health history with applications as they worry about admission denial. Then there are the fiscal pressures of running a resource-intensive program like those that serve students with autism. Decision-making gets complicated.
In the coming months, Autism After 16 is going to turn its attention to mental health issues and autism. We are concerned that adults with autism are not getting their mental health needs met, and we are also concerned that because of behavioral issues, students with autism are often being lumped together in programs with students with mental illnesses that might not be compatible as regards treatment modalities. The lack of social fluency on the part of young people with ASD may not mesh well with program participants prone to extreme emotional response. Accounts indicate that Finnigan engaged in problematic online interactions. (Details can be found in an article entitled "Dragon Slain," published in the current issue of a California State University  student publication called Scene Magazine .) The Herald reported testimony stating that Finnigan had a “bout with schizophrenia.” The paper also noted that “Two acquaintances told police disturbing stories about those preceding weeks. One of the men said he was watching television with Hill when Hill suddenly began choking him and asked him if he was ready to die. The man said he began to black out before Hill stopped. The other witness said Hill had told him he could kill Finnigan any time he wanted and get away with it.”
As an increasing number of students with autism leave high school in search of postsecondary options, we need to make sure we have choices available that are good fits. We need to be up front about comorbidities and we need to examine what types of supports young people with autism truly need. We also need to be aware that bullying—or in extreme cases, violence—can occur into adulthood, as noted in a recent UK survey . And as families, we need to insist that best practice in serving our young adults includes a real understanding of what it takes to keep them safe.
Editor’s Note: I resigned my position as Director of CLE-Rockville in November 2010 and left in February 2011. I gave a presentation on teaching strategies to CLE staff in May 2011 at which point my relationship with the company ended.