Autistic man's fire death highlights failings

TREASURED: Otto Rapihana was a well-respected student at his school
TREASURED: Otto Rapihana was a well-respected student at his school

The death of an autistic man locked in a bathroom during a house fire has highlighted problems with care for adults affected by mental disabilities, experts say.

Otto Rapihana, 20, and a 25-year-old man were being looked after on November 9 by a caregiver who had left the property to allegedly buy fish and chips when the fire started.

The other autistic man was able to escape with just burns but Rapihana was locked in the bathroom until it was too late.

BLAZE: The fire in Glendene that killed Otto Rapihana.
BLAZE: The fire in Glendene that killed Otto Rapihana.

The Fire Service would not discuss the cause of the fire, calling it "sensitive and complex".

But Waitakere police were investigating the incident and considering if charges would be laid.

They said a caregiver was not on site when the fire broke out and Rapihana's body was found in a locked bathroom.

The principal of Arohanui School, which Rapihana attended, said there was a great deal of expertise needed to care for people with ASD or Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

"People need a level of expertise about what they're dealing with and back-up support - you can't just throw these positions to Joe Bloggs,'' James Le Marquand said.

He said the death had prompted concern.

Parents of people with ASD found themselves increasingly isolated from specialist organisations which provided respite or residential care, Le Marquand said.

"The big organisations were once tasked with respite care but they've abdicated from that. Twenty years ago respite services were ongoing lifelong care and we'd have around 80 per cent of our students go into IHC care. Now it is 0.75 per cent.

"It's because our students with challenging behaviour cost a lot of money to support. Their motto is 'In Our Community', but they're not in our community at all.''

Le Marquand said a lack of suitable care options available meant tragedy was inevitable.

Oaklynn Special School deputy principal Colleen Smith said there was a small group of people with complex needs that were going without.

"The families with the greatest needs are the ones without the help. If their needs weren't that challenging they wouldn't need the respite."

Spectrum Care provides respite support for children and young adults from 5 to 21 and has five beds in West Auckland catering for 26 children.

Chief executive Chris Harris agrees there needs to be more resources available for struggling parents.

"There isn't an autism emergency service available in New Zealand. In a mental health situation there are beds at a hospital but there's nothing for these families."


Le Marquand said the loss of Rapihana had affected the students, staff and families at the school "profoundly".

"He was an icon here. He was a king. Whenever we had a really big welcoming for a special guest he would always be sitting in the middle, every time. He was that sort of kid.

"When I went around the classes with Otto's photo explaining what had happened, they all understood.

"Most of them can't speak but they picked up on the sombreness and just that sense of sadness. You could see it on their faces."

Rapihana came to the school's Glendene satellite class when he was five with severe autism.

His condition meant that he couldn't communicate with speech and he had challenging behavioural issues, Le Marquand said.

"But in many respects, his challenges helped define how the school worked to best meet the needs of the students.

"I don't think that he came to the school as a student, he came to us as a teacher."

Le Marquand said Rapihana loved food and going for rides in the school vans.

He had a year left at the school, which takes students up to the age of 21.

Auckland Now