Newsletter – September, 2001

**Companion Resources Newsletter**

edited by Paul D. Leichty

Volume 3, No. 9 September 2001

Actions have consequences. Sometimes the actions we take toward other people don’t have the consequences we intend. The results can be disastrous! The temptation is to put all of the blame on the other person(s). They should have known our intentions!

For whatever reason, sometimes they don’t know. We can’t control what others think or feel or (in many cases) do. So the big question is whether we can learn from the unintended consequences. Can we get “inside the head” of other persons to think and feel as they do and thus learn how they perceive our actions? Sometimes that is very important.

A recent news story hit close to home in more ways than one. The incident happened in the capital city of my home state and was first reported by the Indianapolis Star. The story involved a 15-year-old boy with autism. My primary work is living with persons with autism and related disabilities.

It seems that Bobby Phelps had recently returned home after being away in a treatment facility for six years. He was being returned to his family, his neighborhood, and to his local public school. The first few days of the school year went well.

Then one morning, as the family was hurrying to get ready for school, they could not find Bobby’s favorite shoes. Knowing how important routines are to persons with autism and the difficulty in transitions, Bobby’s father (who has a mild developmental disability himself) accompanied him on the bus and Bobby’s mother told the bus driver that if he started “acting up” to stop the bus and let him out and she would explain to Bobby again that she would look for the shoes and bring them to school later.

As the bus started down the street, Bobby was determined to get off the bus. He hit the bus driver, grabbed the gear shift and threw the bus in reverse. Before it was all over, the Indianapolis police arrived, Bobby’s younger brother also got involved, a chemical spray was used, and all three Phelps men were arrested and hauled away.

My first reaction when reading the story was that there were any number of responsible adults in the situation that could have taken steps to avoid this unfortunate situation. As my wife and I were discussing this story with a group of college students the other evening, I realized again, however, the complexities involved. Everyone was doing their job as expected. Likely, they all followed protocol. Everyone could likely say, “Oh, it’s Bobby’s fault.”

Yet, in the end, Bobby became a victim. At last report, he was still in juvenile detention, probably the last place a person with autism should have to experience. The consequences were disastrous for Bobby because no one was able to put themselves in Bobby’s mind to understand his world. One only wonders what will change for the family, the school system, or the police department because of this incident. Will anyone learn enough to avoid a violent confrontation the next time? Or will we continue to blame Bobby?

Eleven years ago, the United States and Great Britain, with the tacit support of some other countries, went to war in the Middle East. It was a situation that some of us thought could have been handled without bombs and guns. It was a situation that some of us warned would have disastrous consequences as it stirred up hatred and revenge in people who think very different that we in the West do. Eleven years later, the U.S. military is still bombing Iraq and children are dying as our nation holds onto an embargo of food and medicine. Can we understand how people who think very differently than we do could hate us?

This month, an awful tragedy struck our nation. All of us lament the senseless deaths and destruction caused by the planes ramming into buildings in New York and Washington. We condemn the violence that has left American torn and in great pain. Clearly, those responsible need to be vigorously sought out and brought to justice.

We also need to listen to the child within each of us who asks, “Why?” Why would anyone hate us so much? Why would at least 19 people give their own lives to cause this much destruction?

We are responsible adults. We can begin to understand the minds of those who think differently than we do. We can begin to understand the minds of those who hate us. Indeed, it is probably easier to understand the mind of a terrorist than it is the mind of a child with autism. To stop the cycle of violence in our world, we must commit ourselves to do both. We must go beyond demonizing a few. We must continue to move beyond exiling those whom we “can’t handle” to institutions, reformatories, asylums, and jails. And we must move beyond the understandable feelings of revenge, which, if left unchecked will cause the deaths of even more innocent bystanders.

We can do better as we go beyond our assigned roles and put ourselves into the minds of those most unlike us. Then we can act with true compassion and justice to address the real issues that have to do with the thousands of innocent people in our world who die suddenly–or slowly–as a result of our collective attitudes and actions as a nation and a world as well as the actions of so-called terrorists.

The terror that we have felt since September 11 is the terror that many people in other parts of the world have felt on a daily basis for years. Will we continue to feed this cycle of terror by raining down bombs and missiles on yet another country? Or will we take advantage of the unprecedented sympathy generated by these outrageous attacks and give leadership to a better way of responding?

This is an opportune time for us to learn to think differently and act differently so that there can be peace and justice throughout the world. It starts at home and school and the workplace. It starts in our places of worship, our towns, and our cities. It starts by trying to understand and think with those who are most difficult to connect with.

Certainly, persons with autism, who by the very nature of their condition have difficulties with communication and socialization, are prime candidates for our care. Perhaps if we can understand their world, we can also reach out and build bridges of love and peace with other folks who think differently. And maybe we will discover that at the core the things they want aren’t so much different from us after all.


For help in dealing with difficult behaviors, see the resources on the Gentle Teaching page at For resources on world peace see the “Response to Sept 11, 2001” page at and especially “The Challenge of Terror: A Traveling Essay” by John Paul Lederach at


Finally, some words to ponder:

You have heard that it was said, ‘ You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Jesus as recorded in Matthew 5:43-48 NRSV)


Paul D. Leichty

The Goldenrod Community

Middlebury, Indiana


Companion Resources

“People using Technology building Community”



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