I have started and erased this post more than a dozen times. I do not know exactly what to say. On Tuesday evening a mother, Kelli Stapleton, decided to end her life and the life of her 14-year-old autistic daughter, Issy. Her husband called police after Kelli left a disconcerting voicemail on his phone and once he discovered she and Issy were gone, along with the family van. Police discovered them both unconscious, in a van with two portable coal burners, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. Kelli has been released from the hospital, but Issy remains, with the extent of permanent brain damage still unknown.
I confess, I cannot understand Kelli Stapleton. I understand stress, and autism, and autism parenting, believe me I do. What I cannot, and perhaps do not want to understand, is the murderous impulse behind her actions and decisions.
My own autistic child turned 8 this week, amidst the turmoil of moving cross-country and trying to get enrolled in new services and a new school. The stress of that caused me to have a panic attack in the Chicago train station. I understand stress.
I understand the frustration and hopelessness that comes from having a child you don’t yet know how to effectively communicate with; my son didn’t start talking till he was 4, after 3 years of speech therapy, and we struggled with finding non-verbal means to talk to one another. (Homemade flashcards were a huge help.)
I understand the crushing weight of poverty, and trying to find money for one more thing while life itself seems too expensive to continue paying for. As a former single parent and as a parent currently living across the country from my co-parent, I understand the endless feeling of having too much to do and not enough emotional reserves to keep going.
As my son begins 3rd grade at his fifth school this year, I understand the weariness that comes from IEP meeting after IEP meeting after IEP meeting. I understand the frustration and grief from discovering that yet another program has failed to adequately meet my child’s needs.
As a very petite barely-over-100 lbs mother, I understand the concerns parents have about children who are bigger, stronger, and can hit them or hit them back. This is why I’ve never relied on physical strength to maintain peace and harmony in our home.
I can understand feeling suicidal; I cannot understand feeling homicidal, not to anyone who has hurt me and certainly not to my son who I owe everything to.
Much of the media, and a lot of the “autism community” blog posts have centered on Kelli as an understandable figure, driven to murder by the stress of having an autistic child. These voices are not helping. They won’t prevent the next murder or attempted murder. Instead they will excuse it, as they are attempting to excuse this one.
Autism Speaks released a statement that said, “We are deeply saddened by the incident involving Issy Stapleton.” That sentence would not indicate to someone unfamiliar with the story what happened – that Issy’s mother knowingly and intentionally planned and attempted to execute the murder of her 14-year-old child. The “incident” was a criminal action that could have cost Issy her life, and may very well cost her higher mental functioning.
Issy had been separated from her family, her friends, her school, and her cat so that she could live in a residential “treatment center” for autistic children between the ages of 7 and 17, called the Great Lakes Center for Autism Treatment and Research. Their own About Us page paints a negative, fear-mongering, and above all dehumanizing view of autistic children with this unsourced claim, “The average cost to society of a child diagnosed with autism, through age 55, is currently estimated at $3.6 million.” This way of talking about autistic people is atrocious – it contributes to feelings of worthlessness in autistic individuals, and it gives parents a doom and gloom mentality they really do not need to have.
One of Kelli’s online friends has blogged that, “If we do not understand what caused Kelli to break and work like hell to fix it in our own communities and in the system, we are all at risk for it. All of us.”
This is bullshit. The community did not try to murder Issy. The “system” did not try to murder Issy. Kelli Stapleton tried to murder Issy. Can we at least keep this most basic of facts in the case straight?
These murders can be prevented, but that prevention won’t take the form of more funding for the residential facility where Issy’s parents had her housed up until last Thursday, five days before her mother tried to kill her. That prevention must start with us, the parents. We are the ones responsible for our own actions, and if we cannot claim the minimum responsibility to not murder our children, we do not deserve to have these children in our lives.
If you sometimes fantasize about killing your child, get help. If you find it all too easy to empathize with Kelli, but don’t empathize with Issy, get help. Stop demanding more autism services for your child and start finding out what is wrong with you, and start fixing it.
As parents we should demand a better world for our children, not that our children fit better in this world. Autism is not a death sentence, unless a parent or caregiver decides to make it one. Decide better.