09/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Children with Special Needs, Credibility, and the Lone Billings Murder Witness

Breaking national news on August 18, 2009, reports that the ten-year-old adopted son of Beulah, Floridians, Byrd and Melanie Billings, was with the couple in their room when they were attacked during a home invasion and brutally slain, execution-style, on July 9. According to documents made publicly accessible by prosecutors, nine of the Billings' thirteen children were home at the time of the assault but only one of them actually saw the murder of his parents who were shot multiple times by several intruders.

Children as eyewitnesses have historically been precarious territory, ripe for defense attorneys to minimize or dismiss their testimony as tenuous, unreliable or inaccurate. Upon cross-examination, others may become forgetful, confused, or contradictory (as a precaution, some are interviewed separately or videotaped). Add "special needs" to the mix and circumstances become exponentially more complicated. But perhaps this bias only reflects of our culture's discriminatory attitudes toward people with differences who may be perceived as possessing sub-par intellect and treated accordingly.

The Billings murder witness -- one of the couple's young sons -- has been varyingly reported as having either autism or Down syndrome; that he might experience both is, indeed, entirely possible. Nevertheless, his value to the investigation is paramount in reconstructing details of the events as they unfolded, and should be handled as such. As a longtime advocate for those with unique ways of being, and myself an adult on the autism spectrum, I am hopeful that the boy's statement will be given due diligence.

Thus far I have been gratified to learn that a "nurse who works with special-needs children" interviewed the boy who, in addition to his diagnoses, is also alleged to have language delays. Despite these seemingly irrefutable factors, the boy provided the nurse with cogent information about the assault such as a description of the attackers, the sequence of events, words exchanged, and other nuances.

In debating whether the boy's accounting can be trustworthy, please consider the manner in which those with autism and other purported disabilities oftentimes think, learn, process, and retain information best: visually. That is, many of us literally think in pictures--images and "movies" that, with proper allowances, can be called up with the clarity of watching a home video or flipping through the pages of a family album; a veritable photographic memory for life experiences, if you will. This ability, alone, could prove invaluable to the Billings investigation. Additionally, because so many of those on the autism spectrum, and beyond, think in ways that are very literal and concrete, we are usually poor fabricators and transparent liars -- if ever the concept of telling untruths were to even cross our minds.

As such, I suspect that the young boy's testimony will not morph into something that becomes outlandishly embellished to the point of being unusable but will, instead, remain consistent. Given that his speech is often irretrievable, the boy may benefit from standard child therapy practices such as drawing (angry scribbling using black and red crayons = unresolved conflict) or reenacting with puppets or dolls, which may also yield additional information.

Of course, of greatest urgency under these circumstances is providing the Billings' son with compassionate assurances that will enable him to regain a sense of safety and begin a process of healing from his terrible trauma (he reportedly heard his father being told, "You're going to die!"). Contradicting clinical mythology, people with autism and Down syndrome are possessed of intense sensitivity and abundant empathy for others. They often absorb their most compelling recollections linked in memory and associated with strong personal emotion much in the same manner as anyone one of us can recall details about where we were and what we were doing the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the most traumatizing of such memories replay without conscious volition.

Knowing his inability to communicate as effectively as he would wish, caregivers should monitor him closely for other forms of "communication" that, to those less attuned, could be misinterpreted as stereotypical behaviors. This may include self-injury, aggression towards others, daytime urine and bowel incontinence, nightmares, bed-wetting, and increased apathy or distractibility (lending to the "he's in his own little world" misperception). These are potential symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in children. However, I am optimistic that, with the proper emotional supports, the Billings' son will not only be embraced by the loving, healing circle of his family and friends, he'll also be believed.

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