A little over a year ago, Vidyut Gopal and his wife Parul received an unusual letter. It informed them that they were being sued by the two families living next door. The allegation: creating a public nuisance.
While the definition of the crime varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, it typically involves things like a homeowner blaring his music in the dead of the night, obstructing someone else's driveway, or storing smelly garbage on his property.
The Gopals weren't guilty of any of those things. The issue was their son.
Diagnosed with autism at age 3 — just about a week after the family moved into their new home on Arlington Court in Sunnyvale, Calif. in 2007 — M was an affectionate, fun-loving and athletic boy who more than anything else loved to play outside. But he was also significantly impacted by the disorder and had limited verbal ability and social and behavioral challenges, and over the years, M's conduct rattled the neighbors.
In the legal complaint filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court, the Gopals' neighbors — Robert and Marci Flowers, and Bindu Pothen and Kumaran Santhanam — detailed a number of incidents during eight years that they said "have served to contribute to the environment of concern and fear which continues to this day."
Some of the reported infractions involved relatively minor antics, like when M ran into a neighbor's garage and ate one of their bananas. But others included hitting, kicking and other aggression against adults or their children. The neighbors say they understand M's behaviors may be impulsive and that he is not to blame, but that his parents should be held responsible for not supervising him closely enough.
Before they sued, the families said, they tried to work with the Gopals to create a neighborhood "safety plan" but the discussions came to a standoff. Among other things, the neighbors suggested including drawing a chalk "track" where M should ride so he wasn't running into other children but the Gopals didn't think that would help. The Gopals brought up the idea of alternating days when M could be outside and when other children could be outside but the neighbors refused, saying that they would not agree to anything that restricts the "freedom" of their own children.
The Flowers also tried calling the police (but then declined to press charges after talking to an officer). The Pothen/Santhanam family contacted child protective services (which did not find any issues to pursue).
"We shouldn't have to live in constant fear of the next incident," Flowers explained in an interview. "We are not monsters. We just want to protect our children."
For the Gopals, their neighbors' action touched a nerve.
The Gopals said they have taken their neighbors concerns about their son M, who is now 11 years old, seriously and that either they or a caregiver provide 1:1 supervision at all times. But they contend the descriptions of their son's needs in the complaint are wildly exaggerated and that their neighbor's reactions amount to a "modern day witch hunt against a disabled child."
They say that their son should have the right to play in his own neighborhood like every other child in America and that the treatment the family has endured from their next-door neighbors tantamount to harassment.
"Yes, he is autistic, and, yes, he has challenges," Gopal said. "He requires a lot of love and a lot of attention. We know this, and we provide this."
A few months after a particularly acrimonious discussion about their son on the neighborhood listserv online and the lawsuit that was subsequently filed in June 2014, the Gopals said they felt so under attack that they were no longer comfortable staying in their own home. They packed up and fled to a rental property across town.
"We are just deeply saddened by this horrible situation and all the negativity," Gopal said. "It has caused grief and stress for us and for the community around us." His wife explained that the couple "wanted to focus on giving our son a warm and nurturing environment," and could no longer do that in their old neighborhood.
The Gopals said they though their neighbors would drop the lawsuit at that point but instead they stepped up their efforts, demanding access to M's private records regarding behaviors at school, therapy sessions and camps and even information from a confidential parent support group.
In addition to the public nuisance declaration, the Pothen/Santhanam family is seeking to collect unspecified damages for alleged loss of property value due to the fact the Gopals still own their home on Arlington Court. According to the complaint, M's issues threaten to depress what has been a "hot" market for homes in the area.
The Flowers family has moved out of the neighborhood since the lawsuit was filed but Robert Flowers said he is seeking restitution for what he described as an attack on their son when he was four years old by M that he said has left the family shaken. While Flowers would not discuss specific dollar figures, he said that the lawsuit has cost his family an enormous amount financially.
Flowers said the Gopals have focused the case on the rights of their disabled child. But what about the rights of the other children?
"When I tuck my kid into bed I can't look him in the eye and tell him I'm letting this go," Flowers said. "He deserves better than that."
In Silicon Valley, where a large number of autism cases have been documented in recent years, a number of supporters have rallied around the family. An infamous story in Wired magazine in 2001 documented autism "clusters" in the area and wondered whether "math and tech genes" are to blame. Generally speaking, the area has a strong reputation for being accepting of the condition. Co-workers and friends of numerous tech visionaries — from Microsoft's Bill Gates to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg — have publicly speculated that they may have Asperger's, a mild form of autism. Paypal co-founder and tech investor Peter Thiel recently said bluntly that he believes having the disorder is an advantage: "[M]any of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger's where it’s like you're missing the imitation, socialization gene."
The lawsuit has prompted an outcry from special needs groups whose members have appeared in court with signs and T-shirts calling for #autismacceptance and proclaiming that #disabilityisnotacrime.
Jill Escher, president of the Autism Society of San Francisco, called the lawsuit "preposterous and an affront to public policy" and said she's shocked the whole thing wasn't dismissed as soon as it was filed.
Escher said that while she believes a disability should not be used as a "free pass to justify injury to other individuals or property," there are many processes and programs set up to deal with such concerns and that a lawsuit targeting a young child should not be one of them. She emphasized that none of the behaviors detailed in the lawsuit resulted in injuries to anyone involved and that the notion that the behaviors of a disabled child can constitute a public nuisance to a neighborhood is "extraordinary, unprecedented."
"You would have to be super human to preventatively control every action of a child," she said. "And certainly the defendants are not super human. What they are are reasonable, caring and competent people who are doing their best."
Escher said part of the reason for the neighbors' strong reaction to M's difficulties may also be due to the fact that the neighborhood tends to be unusually close-knit — holding street parties and following annual holiday traditions.
"I think that there is a heightened sensitivity to a child who is different and doesn't fit the norm," she said.
On Sept. 22, a judge expressed dismay about the continuing legal dispute and ordered the families to sit down at a settlement hearing which is currently scheduled for November.
"The question I have for each and every one of you is: Do you want to be solution-oriented and a great role model for your kids?" Superior Court Judge Maureen A. Folan said, according to the local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News. "Or do you want to be the opposite of that, and be litigation-oriented?"
When the Gopals bought their first home — a modest but tidy rambler in a long cul-de-sac — they were excited. They had both moved to Silicon Valley to work in high-tech — he as an engineer at a local company and she as a research scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center — and their neighborhood was filled with other well-educated young couples with children, and they imagined how lovely it would be for their son grow up there.
"We thought, 'This was perfect,'" Parul recalled about the day she first toured the neighborhood. And when she looked at her son, she said, she saw that "he liked it, too."
In many ways, M thrived in that house. He became outgoing and developed his love of the outdoors, swimming and riding his bike. He became active in the area's South Asian community, even joining a children's Bollywood dance troupe that included both special needs and non-special needs children.
On most days M played well with the other neighborhood kids, throwing around basketballs and riding his bicycle in circles with the rest of them. But on other days, he had more difficulty.
Once, when he was 3 years old, M repeatedly sat on another family's cat despite his mother's admonishments, according to the lawsuit. The cat reportedly ran to a different neighbor's dog and the cat "violently" scratched the dog on the nose. Another day when he was about the same age he bit a woman who was walking down the street. He would also sometimes bite his mother while they were out in public. The Gopals' neighbors wrote that this was a "behavior which was frightening to neighbors who observed it."
At age six, he spit on a neighbor and her dogs. In the year before the lawsuit was filed, there were two incidents that were more concerning.
In October 2013, when M was about 9 years of age, he pulled the Flowers' 4-year-old son off his bicycle by his shoulders and grabbed him by his hair and shook him. He then kicked the child several times in the back. The next month M rode his bicycle directly into another child, a five-year-old, who was kneeling on the ground getting his shoelaces tied. The boy began to cry, and M hit him.
Relationships among the three neighbors degenerated very quickly after that.
After the neighborhood began discussing the recent incidents online on a private forum, the Gopals sent an e-mail detailing their son's condition and pleading for understanding. To the Flowers and Pothen/Santhanam families, they sent a cease-and-desist letter accusing them of harassment.
The Gopals said all this was happening at the height of M's behaviors and that, with therapy, M's behaviors had improved even before the lawsuit was filed.
Today, they say, M has been able to happily play in his new neighborhood, and they just want the lawsuit to go away so they can get back to spending their time and money on helping their son. They said their old neighbors need no longer worry as they have no plans to return to Arlington Court.