Chattanooga family fights to keep autistic son out of courts system

Nickolas Current, 18, poses for a photo at his Chattanooga, Tenn., home Wednesday, May 23, 2018. Current was diagnosed with autism at age 4.

I just want people to understand autism and to help in any way I can.

Nickolas Current's aspirations don't sound too different from a typical 18-year-old: He wants to build big muscles, get his GED diploma and hopefully go to college and study music production.

But he's currently embroiled in two domestic assault cases that his family says are the result of his autism spectrum disorder.

And if he doesn't get the right help, disability experts say, he has a greater chance of developing a mental health disorder, like anxiety or depression, at the same time that health services change for someone his age. In a 2015 study drawing on a federally funded surveys, researchers at the Autism Institute at Drexel University said many parents reported that their child's doctors didn't discuss changes in adult health care or ways to prevent "gaps in coverage."

"If you're a person with limited communication or your emotional state escalates but you don't have the behavior skills to keep yourself under control, you might lash out at somebody," said Emily Iland, an author, researcher and adjunct professor in the Department of Special Education at California State University whose son is also autistic.

"But in cases like this, is it necessary to criminalize that behavior given the circumstances?" Iland said. "If it's understandable why the person lashed out, or if they were provoked, that needs to be taken into account as well as the way their disability affects their capacity to manage the situation."

Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Gary Starnes seemed to take those factors into account last week when he released Current on his own recognizance from jail.

"Mr. Current's been in custody quite a few days, but he needs mental health treatment," Starnes said on May 18.

He told Current to return to court June 12 at 8:30 a.m., and prosecutors asked his family to make sure Current didn't have access to any guns.

Starnes also said Current can't live in the same house as his aunt or her adopted 2-year-old child for the next two weeks while he gets stabilized on his medication. In court records, Chattanooga police said Current threatened to kill them during his meltdowns in March and April, and though his aunt disputes that characterization, she has since moved out to follow the court's order.

Last week, as Current relaxed in his home, reciting lines from Stanley Kubrick's war classic "Full Metal Jacket," his family said they appreciated Starnes' order.

But they also believe their son's case showcases the criminalization of disabilities that keeps young adults shuffling in and out of jail cells, solitary confinement and courtrooms instead of doctors' offices.

"Nickolas has an IQ of 54," his adopted mother, Brenda Lee Current, said. "Until [May 18], he'd been in jail since April 4. He did not get the correct medication he needed in there and they were putting him in solitary confinement. He didn't need to be in there.

"On the day all of this happened, he was having a crisis."


On March 1, Current came home from Ooltewah High School upset about a conversation he'd had with his adopted father earlier that day. The last six months had been an extremely difficult road in a life full of challenges for Current.

Only his aunt, Jessica Taylor and her 2-year-old were home at the time; Brenda Current and her husband, Pete, were still at work. Nickolas Current and Taylor, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, both use Health Connect, an agency that provides personalized counseling services.

To keep things running smoothly whenever they were alone, Nickolas Current and his aunt had developed a system with their case manager: They would stay in their own rooms, a police report says.

photo Nickolas Current, 18, poses for a photo at his Chattanooga, Tenn., home Wednesday, May 23, 2018. Current has lived through a life of anger and misunderstanding due to his autism, but the past few months have been particularly rough with him being abused by classmates, hit by a car and having a breakdown that landed him in jail.

But according to police, Nickolas Current stopped Taylor as she was trying to get into her room. When Taylor pushed him away, Current screamed that he would kill her and the 2-year-old, the report says.

Taylor, however, says the police misunderstood her; Nickolas Current never threatened the child. Current was still arrested, charged with domestic assault and bailed out of jail on a $1,500 bond. Brenda Lee Current said she'd called the police during the incident, hoping they could help calm him down.

If he's convicted, he could face up to 11 months and 29 days for each count.

"He gets freaked out if somebody yells at him, or if he doesn't know what he's trying to say," Taylor said. "One time, he thought the baby didn't like him and he fell to the floor crying."

Before his case could be resolved, Current had another breakdown about a month later.

Taylor said Nickolas Current slapped her on the leg in the middle of a disagreement. This time, he also said he wanted to kill himself.

"God doesn't want me here," Taylor recalled him saying. Knife in hand, Nickolas Current called a priest and an ambulance for help, said Brenda Lee Current, who was on the phone with Taylor during the incident.

As all of this was happening, a Tennessee Early Intervention counselor arrived at the house for a regular speech therapy and physical therapy session for the baby. She saw the situation unfolding and called police instead, barricading Taylor and the child in a room, Taylor said.

Current was arrested and charged again with domestic assault. He received a $5,000 bond, but there was little sense in making it, Brenda Lee Current said, because even if he did bail out, the court said he couldn't return home with Taylor. His family says corrections officers placed him in solitary confinement so other inmates couldn't hurt him.

That also meant Current was alone every day in a small cell.

In court, Starnes said Current needed to work on his anger problems. Nickolas Current doesn't deny that. But his family says his story is a complicated mix of anger in response to pain and harassment.

At birth, Current's biological mother in Indiana couldn't care for him. He said he was sexually abused as a child and wasn't diagnosed with autism until age 4. For 16 years, he's been living with Brenda and Pete Current.

But recently, they say, he's undergone serious trauma.

In November, Nickolas Current and his family said another student tried to rape him with a shoe in an Ooltewah High School locker room. "I turned around and said, 'Really?'" Nickolas Current recalled. "He said, 'What are you doing to do?'"

According to local news accounts, two students were suspended in connection with the incident: one for verbal abuse, the other for inappropriate touching.

About a month later, Nickolas Current tried to cross Lee Highway and was hit by an oncoming minivan. According to a crash report, the driver saw Current but couldn't stop in time. After he got back up, Nickolas Current ran back to the other side of the street and sat in a field of grass. Police spoke to the driver and never brought any charges, Brenda Lee Current said.

In pictures, Nickolas Current's face was so swollen and bloody from the incident he was unrecognizable. After the swelling subsided, he had black stitches above his eyebrows and around his lip.

"The kids said he had herpes," Brenda Lee Current said.

Though his family said he'd never had any previous behavior issues at school, Nickolas Current was suspended from Ooltewah for the rest of the year because of his arrests.

But Nickolas Current is trying to make good use of his time: He's gearing up to pursue a GED diploma. And on his first weekend home from jail, he helped his father build a play set and a gazebo in the backyard.

On a recent weekday, he sits back there, reflecting on life. He loves Christian rap and science. Maybe one day, he hopes, he can become a music producer and help people better understand the world inside his head.

"I just want people to understand autism," he said, "and to help in any way I can."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.