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Autistic Man Dies After “White Noise” Therapy

July 26, 1985

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ The death of an autistic man who was bombarded with ″white noise″ at a treatment center has prompted a partial ban on the unorthodox therapy, but the dead man’s godmother said Friday she was completely satisfied with the treatment.

Vincent Milletich, 22, died Tuesday after he became unconscious during so- called ″white noise″ therapy, in which he was restrained hand-and-foot with plastic cuffs, masked, helmeted and forced to listen to static through earphones. The ″white noise,″ used by the Behavior Research Institute, is similar to static from an improperly tuned television or radio.

Milletich’s godmother, Mary Agnes Milletich, said the family ″was completely satisfied with everything - happy with the treatments, the people who worked there and anything else that took place.″

Dr. Arthur Burns, deputy Rhode Island medical examiner, said an autopsy he conducted did not reveal the cause of death, but further tests should be complete within two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Education has ordered BRI to stop using the therapy on Massachusetts residents pending an investigation of the Milletich death. BRI treats about 65 patients from several states at seven group homes in southeastern Massachusetts and its Providence school.

The treatment, given to Milletich at a BRI group home in Seekonk, Mass., is one of a number of ″aversive conditioning″ therapies the center uses to control patients with severe behavior disorders including autism, brain damage, psychosis and emotional disturbances.

A spokesman for the American Society for Children and Adults with Autism said Milletich may be the first person to die from the unorthodox therapy.

Mrs. Milletich said her godson lived in New York City for about 19 years with his parents, Pasquale and Mary Ann Milletich, before going to the Providence-based institute three years ago. His parents were making funeral arrangements and could not be reached.

His godmother said Milletich suffered from seizures as well as autism, a form of schizophrenia. Symptoms can include self-destructive and animalistic behavior in children who otherwise appear normal.

Mrs. Milletich said the man’s mother visited him at BRI a number of times, and satisfied with the treatment he received.

″They were doing everything possible to help Vincent,″ she added. ″She could go at any time, without (BRI) knowing she was coming, and he was always happy whenever (his mother) went there. The individuals who worked there were caring, loving people.″

Why Milletich was given the therapy could not immediately be learned. Psychologist Matthew L. Israel, BRI’s director, declined comment on the incident.

Milletich lived at an Attleboro, Mass., group home, but was visiting the Seekonk home at the time of the therapy.

An investigation is being headed by the Bristol County (Mass.) district attorney’s office and the Rhode Island medical examiner’s office.

A preliminary investigation by the Massachusetts Office for Children found ″no indication of any inappropriate action by the (institute) staff,″ said Michael Coughlin, a spokesman for the agency, which licenses the group homes.

BRI is among only one or two of about 400 private treatment centers in the country that use aversive therapy on autism patients.

Investigations into the institute’s methods were launched in the 1970s by New York, Massachusetts and California. The New York and Massachusetts probes ended with those states continuing to send patients to BRI. The California investigation resulted in the February 1977 closure of BRI’s center in that state for operating without a license, said Ken Laureys of the autism society.

The society neither endorses nor condemns treatment programs, but Laureys said: ″The professional field is nearly unanimous with a few exceptions - namely Dr. Israel - in its avoidance of aversive (treatments) and its reliance on positive methods of reinforcement.″

But psychologist Donna M. Cone, assistant director for program standards at the Rhode Island Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals, praised the institute’s methods.

″It is controversial and frequently misunderstood,″ she said. ″But I think they’ve got a very fine program.″

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