We Cannot Excuse Parents Who Kill Autistic Children
Some members of the autism parenting communities are having a hard time making a critical distinction right now, so let me be clear: Just because you understand how difficult parenting can be does not mean you understand why someone would kill their autistic child. Those two subjects need to be separated by a brick wall.
Photo Credit: Shannon Rosa.
Yet the Internet is full of cries of "those poor parents, I understand" after the attempted murder-suicide of autistic teen Issy Stapleton by her mother, and a recent CBS news video that tries to justify the brutal murder of autistic teen Alex Spourdalakis at the hands of his mother and godmother.
Those "poor parents." Really? Were they the ones killed by adults they loved and trusted? And do you really understand how you could stab your child multiple times, as Alex's mother did, or lock yourself in a car with your child and a couple of charcoal grills, as Issy's mother did? In what kind of world are these "understandable" actions? As autism parent Jennifer Byde Myers writes about Issy's mother:
"We cannot say, "We understand why she did it. You know her life was so hard because of her daughter, because she didn't have enough help, because she was burned out, because..." Because what? So what do you mean exactly? So it's understandable when there are days or weeks, when life is hard..."
Kristi Sakai, mother of three autistic children, is similarly adamant about Issy's attempted murder:
As the single mother of 3 Autistic children, I am outraged over the justification of the attempted murder of a child with autism. No, it is NOT "understandable." Whatever the challenges that come along as part and parcel of our lives with Autism, they are not our children's fault. They did not choose their neurology, their challenges, their parents or create the systems we must navigate. Yet our blame falls on them, these innocent vulnerable lives, and they are being sentenced to death for the crime of being Autistic. For having the audacity to require our care and advocacy rather than being convenient accessories in the idyllic lives we imagined we'd have.
And of course Autistic adults -- who will always advocate for autistic kids even when parents will not or cannot -- are outraged and distraught to see parents making excuses for murderers. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) issued a formal statement on the attempted murder of Issy Stapleton:
"...the moment service gaps are used as a means to present the murder or attempted murder of autistic people as understandable or justified, a line is crossed. Too often, when autistic people are the victims of violence, the media seems to present our killers as objects of sympathy."
And pinning these two murders on a "lack of services," isn't even accurate. Alex Spourdalakis's mother rejected offered services on multiple occasions, Issy had just emerged from extended residential care and was going home to total 1:1 support during her waking hours.
So, then, what is the explanation for these parents' actions? Selfishness. The warped belief that if a parent is too overwhelmed to take care of the child, then the child is better off dead. As Sunday Stilwell explains:
"Making the choice to kill your child because caring for them has become too much has to be the most extreme form of selfishness imaginable. With that final violent act the person is saying no one on this entire earth is capable of caring for their child. That no one else could possibly have the solution to a what they as an individual consider insurmountable. They're wrong. There is always a better, safer option."
What is that safer option? Sunday would like to see a nation-wide Safe Haven law. And Autistic advocate and parent Paula Durbin-Westby has this advice (and also compiled a list of numbers to call):
"If you think you are about to harm your child, call CPS, or the police, on yourself. It is better than murder and prison time. You may get access to services and have your (living) child returned, or have options for placement if you cannot safely take care of your child."
What can we do, if we suspect autistic children may be at risk for abuse (or worse) from their parents or caregivers? We can learn to recognize warning signs, signs that aren't always obvious. Madison House has put together a Guide on Responding to Suspected Abuse of People with Developmental Disabilities:
Our hope is that by widely disseminating this list, it will help reduce widespread abuse. Remember, abuse is likely to occur when three factors are present: power of one person over another, vulnerability, and isolation.
We can also listen, hard -- both to parents who are genuinely at a loss as to how best parent their children, and to the Autistic adults who volunteer their insights as to what it's like to be an autistic child. Parent Ariane Zurcher has been encouraging some truly fruitful exchanges, and gathering:
"...feedback from those who may have at one time, or currently have felt so overwhelmed they strike out and from parents who are on the receiving end of children who become violent. I wanted to get a better idea of the kinds of support that might be beneficial to all involved."
Our autistic children's lives are no less valuable than other children's lives. But they are often harder, especially when parents focus on normalizing or curing autism, rather than supporting and understanding children who depend on them. Alex Spourdalakis was subjected to invasive "cure" procedures after his mother fell for the dangerous pseudoscience of lifetime achievment in quackery winner Andrew Wakefield and his colleague Arthur Krigsman. Issy, characterized repeatedly by the media as "extremely violent," seems to have been subjected to intensive normalization therapy -- and to have been rebelling against it. Rather than feeling sorry for Issy's and Alex's parents, shouldn't we consider that they were actually making their parenting harder than it had to be -- and making their kids' lives harder as well?
I have to admit, I suspect Alex and Issy were victims long before their parents tried to kill them. We need to, must do better by our autistic children. We must do our best to support and understand them and their autism, and stop torturing them by trying to turn them into the non-autistic child they will never be. Specifically, if you cannot accept your child's autism for their sake, then please -- do it so your role as a parent will be easier. If that's what it takes to stop someone from killing their autistic child, so be it.
Additional perspectives (not comprehensive, so many parents and Autistics are nursing heart wounds):
- Emily Willingham at Forbes: If A Parent Murders An Autistic Child, Who Is To Blame?
- Michael Scott Monje Jr. at Shaping Clay: Bodies and Behaviors
- Kassiane Sibley at Radical Neurodivergence Speaking: To Issy Stapleton, with love.