Tuesday, July 28, 2009


It’s times like these that I always default to the plaintive cry of Rodney King: “Can we all just get along?”

We are not a rich family. When I was actively engaged in the practice of law, I was very good, but I wasn’t one of those guys who made piles of money. The kind of practice I had and the region I in which I practiced were not conducive to wealth-building. And of course, a child on the spectrum has a tendency to drain economic resources, even in a family with two working professionals.

When we uprooted our family and moved to build a better life for the Little Rankster, it was with the knowledge that life was not suddenly going to be easy. The disparity in the cost of living meant going from a 3200-square-foot house on a quarter-acre lot to a 2000-square-foot townhome.

It’s a very nice townhome, but a townhome nonetheless. That means we have all the joys of having our next-door neighbor being just a common wall away. It wasn’t too bad for a year or so. The neighbors kept pretty much to themselves, and didn’t seem to require an explanation of the noises that very occasionally emanated from our side of the wall. They had a baby of their own, and even having a typical child these days exposes one somewhat to the fact that there are a lot of kids out here on the spectrum. Then they sold their unit.

Our new neighbor was a young lady, in her early-to-mid twenties. She seemed pleasant enough, and was terribly embarrassed when her little dog kept squeezing through the fence to come into our courtyard (I kept assuring her it was perfectly okay).

We first became aware of a problem in early April, when we got a phone message from the property manager who said she had received “several complaints and numerous e-mails regarding the noise” coming from our unit. She specifically mentioned our dog barking at an early hour, and “wild banging on the walls.” She then threatened to take the matter to “the Board” if we didn’t eliminate the problem.

We were taken aback by the fact that our neighbor (we are in an end unit with just one common wall, so there could be no doubt who the complaining individual was) would not simply approach us and discuss the matter as a neighbor. Instead, she took her complaint to the property manager, who compounded the problem by letting “several complaints” amass before deciding to tell us.

The dog thing was easily taken care of. My wife and I both need to leave early for work, and we would occasionally let our dog out in the front courtyard to answer nature’s call before we would leave him alone. Captain Percival would signal the need to come back in with a bark. In fact, there are other unit owners in the area who have their dogs out at that time of the morning, and there is often barking coming from across the street, but we assumed the objectionable noise came from our dog. So we no longer let the dog out in the front during those hours, and I started getting up even earlier to take him out for a walk. In other words, we considered that complaint to have a reasonable basis, and we acted accordingly as neighbors should.

The wall banging was a little more difficult to deal with. We assumed, though, that what our neighbor was hearing was the Little Rankster occasionally dealing with his sensory issues by banging on the tub during bath time, or very occasionally on his headboard when he was frustrated. Those were the loudest things we could figure out that could be coming from our unit. But he never, never banged on the wall.

Armed with our assumptions ⎯ and they were only assumptions since the property manager wouldn’t return our calls and didn’t provide (and still hasn’t provided) copies of the complaints ⎯ we wrote to management explaining the situation, and reminded her and the Board that the Fair Housing Act really took the situation out of their hands. It was really a matter to be discussed between neighbors, and we expressed our willingness to discuss the matter with out neighbor.

And indeed our neighbor did come to discuss it. Unfortunately, she chose a time in the morning when my wife was loading up the Little Rankster in the car to get him to before-school care and herself to work (I had long since left for work). My wife let the young lady know that it was not a good time to discuss the matter and suggested that she come back later. Our neighbor stormed off. At a later date, after not hearing anything further, my wife tried to approach the neighbor, and was met with what can only be described as overt hostility.

We heard nothing further until a couple of weeks ago, when we got a certified letter from an attorney claiming to represent our neighbor. I noted that it was the same kind of letter I used to find myself writing for friends and regular clients, albeit not as well written as those I used to write.

Still the letter was interesting. For one thing, counsel indicated that his client had begun complaining in the Fall of 2008. That meant that several months had gone by before we were made aware of the situation. Had our neighbor taken a chance on actually speaking to us directly when she first felt aggrieved, could we have talked it out? I’d like to think that would be the case for most people, but I’m not so sure that would be the case here.

You see, the letter referenced having been informed that one of our family members had a medical problem, which was leading to the noise. She could only have heard that from the property manager: the same property manager we instructed to keep our son’s condition confidential, so that we could control the manner in which his ASD was explained. We’ve learned the hard way that leaving the explanations up to other people tends to result in the wrong message. And indeed, in this case the manager’s breach of our confidentiality create a misapprehension that no amount of explanation could cure.

There were little clues in the lawyer’s letter that it was the ASD that was causing more of a problem than the noise itself. Although counsel said he was “sensitive” to our son’s condition, he alleged that his client’s “own health has been detrimentally affected by the interruption of her sleep and by the stress caused by this constant pounding.” Moreover, it seems our neighbor’s property values are also affected because “no one who would be aware of this problem would want to buy her unit, and, given the severity of this on-going problem, the seller would be legally required to disclose it.”

If the problem is excess noise coming through the walls, a seller might be required to disclose a problem with construction, but to state that living next door to an autistic child decreases one’s property value is absurd . . . and more than a little prejudicial.

As it turns out, we no longer think our son is the source of the alleged noise problem. That was short-sightedness on our part, caused primarily because we have never been given the opportunity to learn any specifics about the complaints. But the lawyer letter cited an ongoing problem of pounding on the walls: i.e., a problem that was continuing. Again, there has never been any pounding on the walls. More to the point, however, the Little Rankster’s been going through several good months, and hasn’t really been pounding on much of anything for a long time.

After reading the letter from learned counsel, I came to the conclusion that the problem stems primarily from our neighbor’s unrealistic expectations about living in a home with common walls (be it an apartment, a condominium unit, or a townhome). She is likely hearing the same things we hear from her side: people walking on the stairs, washer/dryer activity (in her case, that activity has often been late at night), and dogs barking (our neighbor’s dog is particularly enthusiastic about alerting passers to her presence). None of these things are ⎯ nor could they be ⎯ as disruptive as our neighbor seems to believe.

We could easily voice the same complaints about our neighbor that she has been so forceful in voicing. It is true that there might be more noise of one kind coming from a unit with a child in it, regardless of whether that child is autistic or neurotypical. Our child, on the other hand, has never thrown a loud party into the late hours (as our neighbor did on a recent Saturday), and our child does not leave behind a trail of cigarette butts on the sidewalk (one would think that someone who is in such a delicate state of health might want to refrain from smoking). We never considered complaining about her conduct because we understand the setting we are living in, and we have adjusted our expectations accordingly.

Any question that the problem is our neighbor’s expectations was put to rest about a week after we got her attorney’s letter. I got home from work, and found a message on the machine. That morning, probably no more than five minutes after my wife left for work, the 911 operator called to say that the police were outside and would like a word. My wife called 911 and got the story. Our neighbor had called in around 7:15 am, to report that there was an awful pounding on the walls that wouldn’t stop. By that time, the Little Rankster had been out of the house for at least 15 minutes. The only thing that could have made the noise was the dryer my wife briefly ran to take care of something she need to wear to work.

That’s right, the police were called out because we had the temerity to run the dryer after 7:00 am. The police came, heard nothing and left. Upon getting the whole story, the 911 operator had a pretty good laugh.

There is an obvious irony here. Some people label autistics as being self-absorbed and uncaring. The Little Rankster most certainly does not fit that absurd stereotype. But someone else surely does.

Actually, now that we’ve been up here for a while, we’re starting to think about taking advantage of the low housing prices and look for a real house. The only problem is selling our townhome. Who would want to purchase our unit after we have to disclose what kind of neighbor we have?