Autism Medicine Paranormal Pseudoscience Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

When psychics attack, autistic children suffer

I just shook my head as I perused this item on Pharyngula earlier this morning. What else can you do? The irrationality and lunacy is beyond belief as I read a story about a mother named Colleen Leduc called into school because a report of sexual abuse was made about her autistic daughter Victoria:

The frightened mother rushed back to the campus and was stunned by what she heard – the principal, vice-principal and her daughter’s teacher were all waiting for her in the office, telling her they’d received allegations that Victoria had been the victim of sexual abuse – and that the CAS had been notified.

How did they come by such startling knowledge? Leduc was incredulous as they poured out their story.

“The teacher looked and me and said: ‘We have to tell you something. The educational assistant who works with Victoria went to see a psychic last night, and the psychic asked the educational assistant at that particular time if she works with a little girl by the name of “V.” And she said ‘yes, I do.’ And she said, ‘well, you need to know that that child is being sexually abused by a man between the ages of 23 and 26.'”

Victoria, who is non-verbal, had also been exhibiting sexualized behaviour in class, actions which are known to be typical of autistic behavior…That lead authorities to suspect she had a bladder infection that may have somehow been related to the ‘attack.’

Leduc was shaken by the idea. “It’s actually your worst nightmare your child being violated,” she admits. “So for them to even suggest that, and that be my worst nightmare, it was horrific.”

But things got worse when school officials used the “evidence” and accepted the completely unsubstantiated word of the seer by reporting the case to Children’s Aid, which promptly opened a file on the family.

“They reported me to Children’s Aid,” Leduc declares, still disbelieving. “Based on a psychic!”

So this mother was reported to the authorities on the basis of a pinheaded, woo-loving, credulous teacher’s aide who apparently regularly sought out the advice of psychics and even believed their B.S. I understand that the law probably seemed to leave the school authorities no choice in the matter. I don’t know about Canada, but in most states in the U.S. laws regarding the reporting of suspected child sexual abuse generally leave very little leeway–or at least its interpretations “on the ground” do. The credulous insinuation of a moronic teacher’s aide who believes in psychics must be treated exactly the same as a real allegation based on observations and evidence. However, there has to be some common sense exercised here, as this is what the law says:

But under the Child and Family Services Act, anyone who works with children and has reasonable grounds to suspect a youngster is being harmed, must report it immediately – and the CAS has an obligation to follow up.

The key word is “reasonable.” An allegation based on a secondhand report of what a psychic said with no other corroborating testimony or evidence cannot be considered “reasonable” by any stretch of the imagination. That’s true even though Victoria was reportedly demonstrating sexualized behavior, which apparently school officials used as additional “evidence”:

The school officials then gave Ms. Leduc a list of behaviours that Victoria was exhibiting.

“You must remember that Victoria has severe autism and is entering puberty so she is exhibiting behaviours that are very common with children of this age but, being autistic and not having been taught otherwise, she will exhibit these behaviours in public,” Ms. Leduc said.

The list included putting her hands down her pants, spitting, seeking to sit on cold objects and gyrating against staff members.

“The principal looks at me and says, ‘We’ve called CAS.’ Then I got sick to my stomach.

“I challenged them and asked if the other children in the class with autism exhibited these behaviours. They said, ‘Oh yes, all the time.’ But they were not reported to the CAS because they didn’t have the psychic’s tip.”

The stupid, it sears every neuron into one last burst of apoptosis-inducing depolarization!

The school officials were clearly in CYA (that’s “cover your ass,” for those not familiar with the term) mode. It’s the same sort of CYA attitude that leads to school officials to turn off any vestige of critical thinking skills and do any of the many stupid things documented at Indeed, even the Simcoe County District School Board’s superintendent in charge of special education programs agrees:

Lindy Zaretsky, the board’s superintendent in charge of special education programs, said she could not discuss the circumstances of a specific case.

“School staff and administrators have a duty to report, under the Child and Family Services Act when there is suspected abuse and if they believe there is reasonable grounds. However, it is the CAS that weighs any package of evidence and they make the determination whether to proceed with an investigation,” said Dr. Zaretsky.

“I can say that historical and current and future practice from the board’s position is that psychic readings are not regarded as evidence,” she said.

The case reflects some of the difficulties with prevailing policies on child abuse that adopt a zero-tolerance approach.

“We have this policy in place that when in doubt, call and report,” said Peter Dudding, executive director of the Child Welfare League of Canada, an organization promoting the protection of vulnerable children.

There is still room, however, for common sense under zero tolerance, he said.

“The law talks about ‘reasonable and probable grounds’ to believe something — those are really legal terms for showing common sense.

“I have to tell you that at first blush, hearing that the basis of the report is a psychic doesn’t sound like it falls within the realm of reportable child abuse,” he said.

Actually, that’s the very problem with “zero tolerance.” There isn’t room for showing common sense in a lot of cases, or the concept of “zero tolerance” so scares administrators that they turn their brain off, telling themselves that it’s policy and they really have no choice, even if the evidence presented to them is not evidence at all. So, on the word of a brain-dead idiot (who may have been well-meaning, but nonetheless an idiot), Mrs. Leduc was subjected to an investigation, and no doubt her daughter Victoria was traumatized. It’s a good thing for her she had bulletproof evidence that nothing untoward had happened to her daughter:

The mom, who is divorced and has a new fiancé, adamantly denied the charges, noting her daughter was never exposed to anyone of that age. And fortunately she had proof. The mother was long dissatisfied with the treatment her daughter had received at the school, after they had allegedly lost her on several occasions.

As a result, the already cash strapped mom had spent a considerable sum of money to not only have her child equipped with a GPS unit, but one that provided audio records of everything that was going on around her.

So she had non-stop taped proof that nothing untoward had ever happened to her daughter, and was aghast that the situation had gone this far.

Can you imagine what might have happened if Mrs. Leduc had not had this sort of irrefutable evidence to counter the charge? No doubt the investigation would have gone much further. Mrs. Leduc’s friends and associates might have been interviewed. Victoria very likely would have been subjected to a medical examination, complete with a pelvic exam, to look for evidence. Imagine how traumatizing that would have been to an autistic adolescent. This is the sort of thing that happens when belief substitutes for skepticism (in the case of the educational aide) and when school officials are too credulous or cowardly to exercise even minimal skepticism and critical thinking. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions, and unfortunately a lack of critical thinking can easily turn that road into a superhighway, which appears to be what happened in this case.

There’s so much bleeding idiocy revealed by this case that it’s hard to prioritize what’s the worst. I think it has to be the observation that the school officials who forwarded this complaint clearly have no clue what the term “reasonable grounds” means (whatever it means, evidence from a psychic surely isn’t reasonable by any stretch of the imagination), or, more likely, these officials were too terrified of potential lawsuits that their critical thinking capacity was as seriously impaired as that of the school aide who first made the report on the basis of a psychic reading. It’s far easier just to report the allegation to the authorities and let them sort it out, making the whole mess someone else’s problem. Whatever the case, school officials at Terry Fox Elementary School utterly failed Victoria because they were too stupid or too afraid to exercise a modicum of critical thinking. Before being allowed anywhere near a school, these pinheads should be required to undergo a week-long bootcamp in critical thinking run by James Randi. Meanwhile, the police should be going after the psychic scammer, not a hard-working mother of an autistic child.

When psychics attack, no one is safe from the fallout.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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