If you follow many autism blogs or are involved in the autism communities on Facebook, you have certainly by now heard about the attempted murder-suicide of Issy Stapleton by her mother, Kelli.
I did not know Kelli, nor did I follow her blog closely. I make no attempt to defend an indefensible act and I certainly won't give any of my blog's space to those who do. She has been arrested and is in the hands of the justice system now. Last I heard, Issy was still unconscious and is likely to have brain damage.
There is a Stapleton dad and other Stapleton kids who are left to deal with all of this. It is nothing short of a tragedy. My heart breaks for Issy, for her family, and yes, even for Kelli Stapleton who has done the one thing a mother is never supposed to do: harm her child.
Some of what I'm reading suggests that there are only two camps: those who condemn Kelli Stapleton and those who defend her. This is not true. As intelligent, feeling, human beings, most of the people I know are shocked and saddened. They know this was a horrific act and make no excuses, but are having trouble reconciling the act with the Kelli they knew. They wonder what could have brought her to such a desperate point. And most importantly, what can we do to keep it from happening again?
My son Moe is only six. He barely weighs 40 pounds. But he is strong. He scratches and bites. He once walked up to Jelly while she was sitting at a table, grabbed her ponytail, and threw her to the ground. It was scary. The truth is, he is a difficult child to parent. And while it is my job to do so, while I am learning to parent him with love and acceptance and understanding, I am only human. It is hard. There is no shame in admitting that.
Moe is with me 24 hours a day because we do not have an appropriate schooling option for him. There are days when the attacks are relentless. When every diaper change, every buckling in and out of the car seat, every single interaction comes with aggression. My heart races. I spend entire afternoons running interference between Moe and Jelly and the dog to keep them all safe. Nobody enjoys that. Days are coupled with serious lack of sleep. In those times, I do not feel like myself. My patience wears dangerously thin.
In those times, I can't help but think about what happens when Moe is 12. Or 20. How will I keep Jelly safe then? What happens when he's bigger than me? It is an honest question.
I hope Moe and I will continue to learn together what he needs to avoid this aggression. I hope that with better communication skills and more maturity, Moe will be able to manage his frustration. But when I watch videos of fourteen year old Issy, pulling her mother's hair and attacking therapists, I see Moe. I see him in the way she moves. I also recognize Kelli's pain, both physical and emotional. I don't defend her final actions. But her life before that point? Looks a lot like mine.
We say "get help." But there simply aren't a lot of options. Let's get to the nitty gritty. Yes, in an emergency there is 911. But the long term outlook is tough to think about. It's not like I can just check Moe into a residential facility with 24 hour 1:1 care, where I know he will be safe and happy. These places don't exist in great numbers, and the ones that do have waiting lists of several years - assuming one could even afford it. And it makes me incredibly sad to think of Moe not being at home. Respite options are there, but we're talking a few hours at a time. At the end of the day, it is me and Jeff and Moe.
And sometimes that feels overwhelming. Frustrating. Scary. Desperate.
The Stanford Prison experiment studies, Stanley Milgram's obedience to authority experiment and others show that we as humans can be pushed to do things under stressful conditions that we wouldn't have thought ourselves otherwise capable of doing. It isn't that hard to push people to that level. And make no mistake, raising an aggressive, autistic child is stressful. It is not the child's fault. Issy did not deserve to be hurt. But the reality is many parents are under extreme stress.
Some say that the only legitimate reaction is to cry "monster!" and refuse to discuss any potential solutions to the seemingly growing (or maybe just more visible) problem of caregiver stress. To those who have suffered abuse, it seems unfeeling that we would give the abuser a second thought. I wish we could brush them off as monsters. I wish it were enough to say "stop killing kids." It isn't.
It isn't enough to hate and vilify. This keeps happening. Something has to change. We can simultaneously have empathy and say that Kelli Stapleton took the unequivocally wrong path. How can we change the outcome for next time? We can't just say "get help" and not provide that help.
And we certainly don't need to add to the conversation of hate. It gets us nowhere to make claims that Kelli's blog was just a cover for some master plan to murder her daughter. It gets us nowhere to make a petition to get this filed as a hate crime. It doesn't help Issy or her family. It doesn't help any other child or adult who might be in harm's way.
I only want to know how we keep this from happening again. And we cannot have that conversation without admitting that it could be any of us, that we are fallible even in our enduring love for our children. And that sometimes the future seems so desperate, so without answers, that logic and reason and love for our kids and hatred for those who would hurt them are not enough.
I don't have the answer. I have ideas for better living situations for families, for early intervention programs for parents as well as kids, for true long term care solutions for people with autism. A friend of mine is working on a petition to amend safe haven laws. There are lots of things we can do.
But what we have now? It isn't working.