Girl Scouts Reject Girl With Autism

Wisconsin parents say Girl Scouts discriminated against their 8-year-old.

Nov. 25, 2008 — -- For two years, Magi Klages, despite having autism, thrived in the Girl Scouts -- an organization that pledges to "help people at all times" and to be "honest and fair, considerate and caring."

But when Magi's Brownie troop grew too large and her parents moved her to a smaller one for children with special needs, they never imagined their 8-year-old would be kicked out.

Michele and Kevin Klages of Oconomowoc, Wis., were told their daughter was a "danger" to the new group's four other children who are all physically disabled.

"We don't get it," said Michele Klages, who always accompanies Magi to Brownie meetings. "She's 30 pounds and we were there. We were told she was scaring the other girls."

When the troop sat down for a mat-weaving project, Magi threw a fit, Michele Klages said, biting herself and running out of the circle.

Having an 'Autistic Moment'

"She was having moments as most autistic children do," the 42-year-old mother told "We pulled her out of the circle and let her have her moment. At one point she got up and ran away and her father got her."

Michele Klages said they felt the Nov. 13 meeting had gone "fairly well" for an autistic child thrust into a new situation. But four days later she got the call that Magi would not be welcome in the new troop.

"To feel like someone doesn't want your child around, it rips your heart out," said Michele Klages, who is also raising a 10-year-old son and holds a part-time office job. "I never expected my child to be discriminated against. Never in a million years."

She said they had been up-front with the group leader about Magi, who is mostly nonverbal and relies on sign language to communicate. They were especially upset to learn the leader has a child with special needs.

"It's terrible," said Michelle Tompkins, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, who said she had received a "courtesy call" from the local council about the incident. "We are very inclusive and have a national policy against all forms of discrimination."

Anita Rodrigues, spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast, did not return several phone calls from But Michele Klages says the council contacted her about the possibility of finding another troop for Magi to join.

Even the Autism Society of America admits that the Girl Scouts do "wonderful work" with children with disabilities and has often contributed volunteers to help children with this neurological disorder.

It says that children with autism are rarely dangerous to others and that the incident illustrates the need for more support and training in organizations like the Girl Scouts.

"These children are so misunderstood," said Michele Klages. "We need to educate ourselves that these kids can be loving and fun. They should be given a chance like any other child."

Confrontations Sometimes Happen

But while social confrontations like the ones experienced by the Klageses are not common, they happen.

Earlier this year, 13-year-old Adam Race, who is also autistic, was banished from his Minnesota Catholic church. His priest issued a restraining order, saying the teen -- who was 6 feet tall and weighed more than 225 pounds -- hit a child, nearly knocked over an elderly parishioner and spit and urinated in the church.

"My son is not dangerous," Carol Race told The Associated Press. "The church's action is a certain community's fears of him. Fears of danger versus actual danger."

Autism is a complex developmental disability that strikes one in 150 children -- one in 94 boys -- usually before the age of 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disorder takes its greatest toll on a child's social interaction and communication skills.

The numbers of children with autism have dramatically increased in the last decade, but it is not clear if the disease has become more prevalent or if doctors are just getting better at diagnosing.

"Fortunately, we are seeing increased awareness and a greater willingness to understand autism," said Marguerite Colston, spokeswoman for the Autism Society of America, who has an autistic son the same age as Magi.

But with few support services outside the schools, "parents and communities have to figure things out for themselves," Colston told

The autism society recently published a booklet -- "Growing Up Together" -- to help children better understand the disorder. It describes "unusual" behaviors, such as difficulty talking or not talking at all, flapping hands, avoiding eye contact and trouble reading facial expressions.

The sound of a school bell may hurt their ears; some have trouble eating food because of taste and smell sensitivities. "On the other hand," according to the booklet, "things that bother most of us, like a bee sting, may not appear to be as painful to them."

Integration and modeling typical children is important, according to Colston. "When children with autism become more and more isolated, the stranger they will be."

Autistic Children Rarely Hurt Others

Like Magi, other children with autism are much more likely to show self-injury and property destruction than hurt others, according to Wayne Fisher, director for the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

"We don't see a lot of danger when they integrate," he told "These are unusual cases."

"They are likely to display strong emotional reactions to new situations and changes in environment," Fisher said.

Magi might well have adapted to her new Girl Scout troop after several more visits, as routine is important, he said.

"But their behaviors are not well understood by the general public and it makes them uncomfortable."

And research shows that typical children also benefit from interacting with autistic children, showing improvements in patience, social skills and communication.

Michael Alessandri, executive director of University of Miami's Center for Autism and Related Disorders, called the Klages' incident "shocking."

Scouts: Including Autistic Children

"Children with autism are often excluded because of lack of understanding of their needs and because their special needs have not been appropriately accommodated," he said. "We hear of this far too often."

In May, a mother in Port St. Lucie, Fla., considered legal action after her son's kindergarten teacher led his classmates to vote him out of class. Alex Barton, 5, was being evaluated for autism.

"No one is served by this action," said Alessandri. "The child with autism misses out on an opportunity that is rightfully theirs. And others miss out on the joy of learning about people with autism who are always remarkable in so many ways."

Under law, the Girl Scouts -- if it receives federal funding -- is required to make a "reasonable accommodation" for Magi under the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to Alison Barnes, a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis.

Asking Magi to travel a long distance for another troop would not meet the letter of the law, Barnes said.

"What happened here instead is [Magi] got a troop that said, 'OK, we'll try it.' Then after one day they said, 'Never mind, we don't want to do it,'" Barnes told

But in a similar case in 2006, a California court struck down a suit filed by parents who claimed their teenage son -- who had a form of autism - was not allowed to attend a weeklong Boy Scout camp.

Lawyers for the troop argued that the boy, "spits, kicks and swears at the other children."

The court dismissed the case, ruling that Boy Scouts -- which also openly discriminates against gays and atheists -- is a private club.

But the Girl Scouts has been historically open to anyone and prides itself on its anti-discrimination policies.

The Klageses say the local council called them this week to help find another troop for Magi.

"They want to work with us and we'll continue to work with them," said Michele Klages. "Magi really wants to be a Girl Scout, but it's important to find a troop that's a good fit for her."

But Magi won't go back to the troop that kicked her out. "These leaders need to be educated and they can't pick which disabilities they want in the troop," her mother said. "It's not their call."

"Every child needs more than one chance in a new situation," she said. "I'm a mother protecting my child. I want people to know this is not something to fear."