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Autistic Man Died Of Asphyxiation; Link To Treatment Unknown

October 24, 1985 GMT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ An autistic man who had been shackled and bombarded with static through earphones during punishment therapy died of asphyxiation, but it is not known whether the treatment caused his death, a medical examiner said Thursday.

″I can tell you how he died, but I can’t tell you why,″ said Dr. Arthur C. Burns, Rhode Island deputy chief medical examiner. ″We cannot say it was due to the therapy or not due to the therapy (in) this type of death.″

Vincent Milletich, 22, of New York City, died July 23 immediately after undergoing the punishment therapy at a Seekonk, Mass., group home run by Behavior Research Institute.

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Milletich, who died at Rhode Island Hospital, was given the ″white noise″ therapy and other aversive treatments to stem his wild behavior.

His death renewed a furor begun 14 years ago when the Providence-based institute started using aversive conditioning to treat severely disturbed patients, some of whom pose threats to themselves.

Massachusetts officials planned to suspend the institute’s license for seven group homes in that state on Friday, but postponed the action pending more hearings.

The postponement followed an administrative judge’s recommendation Wednesday that the institute be allowed to continue to operate if it stopped punishment therapies, which range from reprimands and pinches to cold showers, ammonia sprays and the white noise treatment.

Burns gave the autopsy report to the Bristol County, Mass., prosecutor’s office without any recommendation on whether charges should be filed.

District Attorney Ronald Pina was reviewing the report and would have no immediate comment, officials in his office said.

The institute’s founder and director, Dr. Matthew Israel, said he would have no comment until he reads the report.

After the death, Milletich’s aunt, Mary A. Milletich, had said the family was ″completely satisfied″ with the treatment, and relatives of some other patients have supported the program, calling it a last resort for youths who otherwise would be in straitjackets or on drugs to control them.

But some parents of autistic children equate the institute’s methods to torture, saying positive reinforcement like hugs and praise are effective.

Burns said the role played by the white noise treatment remained a mystery.

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″The question remains why the oxygenation to his blood was interrupted. That’s the question we cannot answer,″ Burns said.

He said the autopsy also showed some injuries not directly related to the death.

″They were minor. Certainly not lethal or life threatening,″ Burns said, declining to elaborate. He also refused to say whether the injuries appeared related to the center’s therapy methods.

The institute has more than 60 students from Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Delaware in its Massachusetts group homes. They travel each day to the Providence school. Rhode Island withdrew 11 autistic clients from BRI, but continues to license the school.

In addition to autistic youths, the institute accepts those diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, brain damaged, developmentally disabled and psychotic.

Autism sufferers have difficulty relating to people, live in disregard of reality, have compulsive behavior such as continuous rocking and have delayed development of language and social skills.