There's a woman named Kelli Stapleton. If you're part of the autism community, you've no doubt heard of her. She is a 46 year old mother and once prominent blogger and autism advocate.
She's also a victim of parental abuse, a topic that is severely under reported and under researched.
Kelli has a 15 year old daughter who is severely autistic. Autism is a very lopsided spectrum. Only an estimated 7% of cases fall on the severe end. A majority of the rest are high functioning and Aspergers (often considered the same thing). They are typically non-violent and the children you hear about winning kids Jeopardy! or are music or math prodigies like Jacob Barnett.
The Stapleton's, like many families with autistic children, struggled to get their daughter the help she needed. For severely autistic children who are also prone to violence, help is often out of reach and/or unavailable.
[Read mom, blogger, author and advocate Liza Long's novel on mental illness, her son's violence and the school-to-jail pipeline here.]
When a severely autistic child has a meltdown, they can get violent. These meltdowns can last hours, often with no apparent triggers. As toddlers, they hit, punch, kick and bite, and the target is usually the primary caregiver- mom, who is only trying to keep her child from injuring themselves. As these children age however, they get stronger.
In an article published by NBC news, one mom, who's child attended the same facility as Kelli's daughter, is quoted saying, "the punches no longer become bruises, they become knock outs. The kicks become fractures and broken bones," in regards to the impact age/size has on the violent meltdowns.
Kelli's daughter had a history of injuring her mother, sending Kelli to the emergency room at least twice in the time leading up to her daughter's placement in a facility for intensive treatment for her autism.
The Stapleton's were trying to get their daughter the care she needed, but when plans apparently changed, Kelli snapped.
In September 2013, Kelli and her daughter were rescued from their family van suffering carbon monoxide poisoning. The source- two charcoal barbeques Kelli had lit in an attempt to kill both herself and her daughter.
Kelli recovered quickly while her daughter was in a coma for several days, but eventually did recover completely with no adverse effects, or even the understanding of what happened.
Kelli is currently incarcerated on charges of attempted murder, which she pleaded guilty to. She faces up to life in prison.
There is no excuse for trying to kill your own child. As an outsider likely facing a similarly troublesome future with my own child, I pity this woman and her family. As hard as it is to find appropriate help and care for a violent child, there are options when all else fails that do not include attempted murder.
There are residential treatment centers around the country to step in and house and care for these often dangerous children and teens. A parent has last resort options such as an RTC, or regrettably, giving up parental rights completely, forcing the state to provide otherwise unobtainable care.
There are no good options for parents of severely autistic children, however murder-suicide shouldn't even be considered as one.
There's something we seem to have forgotten as a culture. Empathy.
Empathy is defined as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of others."
While I can't condone what Kelli did, I understand, and I feel horrible that she felt death was their only option. Parents who have violent children often show the same behaviors and emotional trauma as victims of domestic abuse such as flinching, walking on egg shells, hiding injuries, etc.
Kelli is a parent who was abused by her daughter and snapped. No one should be injured at the hand of someone they love, and yet parents of violent children are expected to put up with the abuse and "deal with it" because its their child.
These parents need options. They need to know they have options, and they need to know how to access them. They shouldnt have to choose between pressing assault charges on their child, or signing away their rights. Instead of reading headlines and labeling this woman as a monster, try to image how well you would fare after 15 years of abuse and being unable to do anything about it. She likely felt she was the only one who could handler her daughter, and only killing herself would only force someone else to take her place. If she couldn't handle her as her mother, she likely thought no one else could.
Again, murder should never be an option. This woman made a terrible decision, and committed a terrible act. She should be punished for it. However, I think this case offers a unique opportunity.
Autism does not need awareness, autism needs action. Affordable, quality care needs to be accessible to all affected by autism. Parents shouldn't have to suffer through months and often times years of waiting lists and "I don't know" answers to get their kids help. Behavioral therapies such as ABA (applied behavioral analysis) need to be available and included as part of the typical therapy approach when managing autism.
As a culture, we need to remember to have empathy whether or not you agree with a persons actions. There are millions of people in the world suffering through unimaginable trials, and its no ones place to judge how they deal with it (criminal trials aside), but we can all take a moment to consider how they must feel before criticizing.