On the way to the hospital that cold evening, Ellen Hughes sat in the passenger seat of the car, her husband at the wheel, while their son, Walker, sat in back pulling her hair and trying to strangle her.
It had been an awful day. Walker, who is 6-foot-3, has autism and is ordinarily gentle, had been rampaging through the Hughes’ small Chicago home, suffering, they would later learn, from a “paradoxical reaction” to a medicine that was supposed to calm him down.
He had chased his parents through the house, tackled his father to the ground, even bitten him through his winter coat hard enough to hit flesh.
Get to the hospital, a doctor said.
They obeyed, but as they passed the entry doors of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Walker bit his mother’s hand, hard. She screamed, and a phalanx of men in uniform swarmed in.
“Picture it,” she says, “here’s this fragile little mom, the aged parents. Walker’s huge and he’s violently attacking me and suddenly there’s all these cops on him. I’m thinking, ‘My God, they’re gonna kill him.’ “
They weren’t technically cops. They were the hospital’s public safety officers, but Hughes knew how wrong things could go between a big, violent man with autism and a bunch of uniformed men wearing badges, bulletproof vests and stun guns.
And then things went an entirely different way.
Walker Hughes is 33. His parents, Robert and Ellen, have spent almost that many years in and out of hospitals, trying to help their son while also trying to help others understand autism. In one hospital, Walker was pinned to the floor, screaming. Once, he was handcuffed to a bed, and ever since, even getting him onto a gurney was likely to be a fight.
At Loyola, Ellen prepared for the fight.
“I’m scared to death and I’m bleeding,” she says, recalling that day in late December. “I’m sitting there sadder than I’ve ever been in my life and I hear this game starting up.”
In the cubicle where Walker had been taken for tests and medication, he kept bolting off the examination table. Instead of brutally restraining him, though, the officers tried a different approach each time he jumped up.
As Ellen described the game in a recent blog post:
“Walker gets up!” they cheered.
They helped him sit back down.
“Walker sits down!”
And he did.
“Walker scoots back.”
“Walker lies down.”
For two and a half hours, the officers coaxed and cajoled. They danced. They sang children’s songs. They sang James Brown. They harmonized on the “Mr. Rogers” theme song.
“Walker loved it,” Ellen says. “He was kind of mystified and charmed and started smiling. They were men his size who considered him a real person. It’s scary when people don’t think you’re a real person. You have autism and you can’t talk -- but you’re a person. It’s scary to be treated like a lion from the zoo. We’ve been to the doctor and the hospitals a million times and I’ve never seen anything like these guys.”
What Walker experienced might have been different if not for Sgt. Keith Miller, who was on duty at Loyola that night.
“First of all,” he said, when I talked to him Tuesday, “I am the parent of an autistic child myself.”
His experience with his son, who is 14, prompted him to seek training in how to handle patients with autism who arrive at the hospital. Now he helps train other officers. One thing he teaches is that no two people with autism are the same. He found the key to working with Walker, he says, when Walker mentioned Mary Poppins.
“Right then and there, I knew how to deal with it,” he said. “We started singing ‘Mr. Rogers.’ I did ‘Sesame Street’ voices. We made a game. Clapped, cheered. We stayed there for two and a half, three hours. Very few things were more important than Walker.”
Miller says that police and other public safety officers are waking up to the need for such training.
“I think it’s something that’s new, getting bigger and bigger,” he said, “considering that the diagnosis of children with autism is rising.”
After that night, it took Ellen Hughes a few weeks to collect herself well enough to post something about it on social media. She also wrote the hospital asking it to relay her thanks to the officers.
“You can’t train that kind of spirit,” she says.
Walker is getting good care now and recovering from the wrong medication. Ellen’s hand still hasn’t healed from the bite, but something in her was restored that night.