Ghosts of the Asylum in Spring… a look back at exclusion and abuse

Woodlands was constructed in NewWesminster in 1878 and was closed in the 1980s.  Though the signage I read said 1996 – so I am not certain about the closure. It was an asylum for those with ‘developmental disabilities and the mentally ill.’ It was a place of incarceration, exclusion, dehumanization, and the existence of this institution and the attitudes that went with it, denied those with developmental disabilities the right to be valued for who they were and to included in their families and communities.

This past Sunday, my Mom, H, and I walked through the memorial gardens there. We read the signs – telling about the injustices and atrocities that occurred. A touch of spring accompanied us briefly on our deeply moving trek. The sun came out and stole away a bit of the chill, and the early buds promised something more of the spring yet to come. Today was just a glimpse.

I glimpsed another thing emerging today as well… H’s understanding of injustice.

As we read the memorial plaques – H became increasingly interested and was full of questions.

Who lived here? Who? When? Did they put people with autism here??

Yes, honey – they did…

That’s Horrible!


You mean I might have been in a place like that?!?

Well – families were often told that they shouldn’t raise their children. Lots of people – and even doctors would say that.

They were wrong!!

Mom – I feel sad for these people.

Me too, honey…

He wandered through the rest of the gardens with a certain reverence – and picked up a discarded CD that was left by one of the grave stones.  H said littering showed a lack of respect. He raced across the lawn to be sure that the offending item was discharged appropriately into the garbage.

I am proud to see his indignant attitude and his sense of justice. This is the budding… the early spring of his emerging self-advocacy!


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2012)

[If you are interested in reading more about the history of Woodlands there is information here (an article from W5) and here (a beautiful and moving photo essay)]

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
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7 Responses to Ghosts of the Asylum in Spring… a look back at exclusion and abuse

  1. Wow!! What a cool topic. If you’ve ever read about Donald Triplett, he was the first kid Leo Kanner diagnosed with autism back in the late 1930s, before he wrote about his discovery of it in 1943. Donald’s parents were told they should just put him in an institution and forget about him, and they did for a year, but then they took him out and sent him to Kanner for research. Your son H and I might owe part of our freedom to Donald’s parents and Leo Kanner. But we aren’t totally free yet. In many ways society itself is still an institution of, like you said, “incarceration, exclusion, dehumanization”.

    I became curious about the place after I read your post and found this article which begins with the story of a highly intelligent hyperactive kid who was there, and stories of what they did there. That could have been me because when I was really young, they did still send kids like me to places like that.
    Here are two sites with photos of the inside:


  2. lexilil says:

    A really moving post, and great to hear H’s response to this place. x


  3. arianezurcher says:

    A prisoner in describing his experience at being put in solitary confinement said, “it was hell. Like being put in an insane asylum.” This was a guy who’d been convicted of murdering several people. Even he understood that his imprisonment was better than being placed in a mental institution.


  4. Pingback: “No More”: ASAN Vancouver Disability Day of Mourning | Thirty Days of Autism

  5. Pingback: Disability Day of Morning: The Loss of Innocence | Thirty Days of Autism

  6. Pingback: Disability Day of Mourning: The Loss of Innocence | Thirty Days of Autism

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