Nova Scotia

Student with autism dragged 'kicking and screaming' to tiny padded room, says mom

A school board spokesperson says the time-out room at Tallahassee Community School in Eastern Passage meets the provincial requirements.

Halifax Regional School Board says 'time-out room' at Halifax-area school meets provincial regulations

Hayden Vaters, 8, was sent to a time-out room at Tallahassee Community School in Eastern Passage. (Amanda Vaters)

The mother of a boy with autism is raising concerns about the use of so-called "time-out rooms" after she said her child was left sobbing on the bare floor of a small, padded room at his Eastern Passage, N.S., school last month.

Amanda Vaters's eight-year-old son, Hayden, has a preliminary diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and possible attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Before her family moved to Nova Scotia last August, Hayden attended school in Ottawa, where staff helped keep him calm and focused through breathing techniques, noise-cancelling headphones and giving extra work to keep him busy when he finished his other assignments.

Disrupting class

But a few months after he began classes at Tallahassee Community School in the Halifax area last fall, Vaters said she started getting phone calls from the school telling her Hayden was being disruptive during lessons.

Vaters said her son sometimes gets bored after finishing his work, so he distracts himself by doing things like playing with his cafeteria money or talking to other kids. The teacher asks him to quiet down, Vaters said, but sometimes that doesn't work.

Hayden, pictured with his mother Amanda, is dressed in a costume for a school play in Ottawa. (Amanda Vaters)

"She said it would get to the point where he wouldn't keep it down, he'd be getting out of his seat, and next thing you know he's running around the classroom," Vaters said.

On June 2, the school called Vaters and asked her to pick up her son because he was being disruptive and had thrown a chair.

Son was curled up on floor, says mom

Vaters said she arrived at the school's office and was directed to the resource room where the principal was waiting. The behavioural specialist was there, too, "holding a door open a crack, peeking in."

"I walk up to the open door and I see just this tiny little room, white padded walls and him curled up in the corner on the floor, crying. They don't even have padding on the floor or anything to make it comfortable — nothing. It's just hard floor, padded walls," Vaters said.

"I walk in and as soon as I go to touch him, he automatically yelps and pushes me away because he doesn't realize it's me. So I just said, 'Hayden, bud, it's me, look up.' And he looked up and as soon as he saw it was me, he wrapped his arms and legs around me."

Government policy

Vaters said after she took Hayden home, she looked up the government's policy on time-out rooms.

The province's guidelines state that they must:

  • be approved by the school board
  • be a minimum of 56 square feet
  • not be locked, latched or secured
  • be supervised at all times
  • not contain items or fixtures that may be harmful
  • have adequate light, ventilation and heat
  • be conducive to self-quieting behaviours and not overly stimulating
  • have an unbreakable observation window

Halifax Regional School Board spokesperson Doug Hadley said the room at Tallahassee Community School meets those criteria and was approved by the board's student services department.

A school board spokesperson says the time-out room at Tallahassee Community School meets the provincial guidelines. (Google Street View)

The guidelines say the rooms are a "proactive strategy to support self-monitoring, student self-reflection and self-calming" and "should be educationally beneficial to the student."

Time out "should not be used as a punishment, to threaten students, to humiliate them or make them feel afraid," the guidelines state.

'He was terrified'

But after hearing her son's account of what happened, Vaters said it appears staff had to "basically drag him down to the office kicking and screaming."

"He said, 'I told them to stop. They were hurting me. They were pulling on my arms and it hurt.'"

Vaters said she explained to staff that Hayden, like some people with autism, doesn't like people he doesn't know touching him.

However, Hayden told his mother the staff didn't listen to his pleas. He was put him in the room with the door closed and couldn't get out, said Vaters.

"So he was terrified, basically," she said. "The people who are supposed to be helping him focus to calm down when his brain can't are locking him in a room and terrifying him."

The province's guidelines say staff must use "non-violent crisis techniques" to move a student to a time-out room.

Vaters said Hayden was in the room for about 30 minutes.

A few days after the incident, Vaters said she met with the teacher and principal, who told her they had Hayden's best interests in mind and that the room does help some students calm down.

Time-out room vs. sensory room

"I would like to think that we're evolving away from the use of time-out rooms and more on individualized planning for students that allow for choice," said Cynthia Carroll, executive director of Autism Nova Scotia.

She said there's a difference between time-out rooms, which are usually bare and "associated with more of a punitive approach," and sensory rooms, which generally have dim lighting, comfortable seating and options for self-soothing, which could include toys.

Cynthia Carroll, executive director of Autism Nova Scotia, says time-out rooms are "associated with more of a punitive approach." (Mark Crosby/CBC)

"It would be difficult to self-regulate in a room that you couldn't interact with anything, there was nothing there to help you decompress or there was nothing there to help reduce anxiety," she said. 

"In fact, it could have the opposite effect, where their anxiety could spike."

Parental consent

Hadley said parents must consent to the use of a time-out room as part of a student's plan.

Vaters said she knew a calming room was used at the school, but she had never seen it before June 2. She said she'd like to see the room made more welcoming and comforting to students, with calming colours and perhaps a beanbag chair or cushion.

Hayden has not gone back to school since that day. Vaters said she plans to home-school her son this fall.

"He still says he hates Tallahassee and never wants to go back," she said.