By Gregory B. Hladky
12:25 PM EST, February 14, 2013
Gary James has been written up in publications like the New York Times for his work helping families with autistic children. He's been praised by scores of parents of special needs kids for the community support he's helped develop through his Connecticut-based website.
James is also the target of accusations that he's a fraud and an Internet bully, and those allegations have been under investigation by the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection for at least the past seven months.
"It's a total lie. It's absolutely ridiculous," James says of the claims that triggered the state probe. He argues he's become the target of a small group of women who "have compared me to Hitler... basically to destroy me."
Earlier this month, James says, an anonymous complaint to state authorities that his two children "were in danger" resulted in a visit to his Oxford home by local police. (James has five kids, including a son with autism.) "They had to examine my children to make sure I wasn't beating them up," he said. "I just want you to know what kind of people I'm dealing with."
James is the founder of "Apps for Children with Special Needs" or "a4cwsn.com," a for-profit website that reviews applications for the Apple iPad. Experts and parents say the iPad and some of the programs for it have become marvelous instruments for teaching and communicating with autistic kids.
He's also created "Very Special People Incorporated," a non-profit organization created in 2011 that James says is dedicated to helping people in the autism community. James says he applied for tax-exempt status for the group in June 2012 but that federal officials haven't yet approved that application.
James says he doesn't know why his critics, all of whom have autistic children and were apparently once among his supporters and donated money for his program to provide iPads to needy families with autistic kids, turned against him.
"They seem to think the money donated wasn't given out in iPads," he says, adding that he's given out more than 210 iPads to families all over the world and that the cost of those far exceeded the money donated.
He also says that some parents of autistic youngsters have "a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety… and some people really like attention."
Lois Smith is one of James' critics. She's from Michigan, the mother of an autistic child. Smith says at least 17 women from the autism community began questioning James because they "found out some really troubling things."
Smith says she began doubting James when she found out one of the iPads she'd donated ended up in the hands of James' lawyer — a claim he categorically denies. According to Smith, she personally donated $2,700 in cash and three iPads worth another $1,500; and she believes others have donated at least $30,000.
Smith says James began "attacking me to shut me up" and put her name and the names of others who began to ask questions "on a public blacklist" and told others they shouldn't communicate with any of his critics.
Other critics have pointed out on various Internet blogs that James is using his for-profit company to raise money for what amounts to charity work, and are urging people to give directly to recognized autism charities.
"The special-needs community is so vulnerable," Smith says. "People don't want to believe he's awful."
James has responded fiercely to the accusations, engaging in heated e-mail and Twitter exchanges with his critics. He says the 210 iPads he's given out to needy families cost more than $100,000, which he adds is considerably more than has been donated to his project.
All these claims about James contrast dramatically with the testimonials from grateful parents posted on his website and blog posts praising his work from various members of the autism community.
"A4 [James' website] has shown me that I am not alone," wrote Mandy Green of Kentucky. "That there are people that love and care about children they don't even know."
"A4 has and continues to help special needs children around the world... Please keep up the good work Gary James and his family," was the comment from Tersha Nicole Seegers from Wilmington, North Carolina.
James says he's already contacted lawyers about what he calls "obvious slander [and] libel," but hasn't yet taken any court action against his detractors.
"We're waiting for the Department of Consumer Protection to close the case... or to do whatever they have to do," he says. "It doesn't make sense for us to jump the gun."
James says he doesn't know why the state investigation, which he believes actually began in December 2011 or January 2012, is taking so long. He says no one has asked to see any of his bank records or computer files, which he insists are open to anyone who wants to check what he's done with the donated money.
Department spokeswoman Claudette Carveth says the investigation was opened in June 2012, but declined to comment on the charges or the progress of the inquiry. "We expect this will be an investigation that takes a while," she says.
James says he's worried the negative publicity about the investigation will overshadow the good work he and his family have been doing. "I'm afraid it will keep us from doing what we can for children with special needs."
"I want the truth to be out there," James says.
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