I’m hesitant to tackle this because on some level I don’t feel that I have the right. I don’t have a child with autism, and I won’t pretend to have an inkling as to what it’s like to have a child with autism. I have no doubt that children with autism are as varied as children with Down syndrome; to lump them all together as the same or similar would be inaccurate and offensive, I’m sure. So, I do hope that the story that broke this week about Kelli Stapleton and her daughter Issy doesn’t serve to paint a picture of autism in all cases as Issy has experienced it.
In a nutshell, a mother attempted to commit suicide and kill her daughter this past week. Her daughter is autistic and for years has been extremely aggressive and violent, attacking family members and sending her mother to the hospital on multiple occasions for serious injuries. There is a whole history behind the story – a history I won’t even attempt to summarize. Flannery did an excellent job here of writing about it and delving into one of the underlying issues, and that is a failure of the system to support this family.
This is a story that has left the autism community reeling, but I don’t think it’s an autism issue. The story has stunned parents of children with other special needs, as well – which is probably why I can’t stop thinking about it. Could that be my family? While I can’t fathom being driven to the desperate measures Kelli Stapleton was driven to, I also can’t in good conscience vilify her. I know all too well what it’s like to exist within a system with a child with special needs – a system that finds loopholes, that lies and plays games and uses clever strategies to get around doing what’s right for children in the interest of economy. Our situation has been far less extreme than the Stapleton family’s, but I’m not sure I’ve talked to a single family of a child with special needs that hasn’t been subjected to bullshit maneuvers by the system that is supposed to support them.
One news outlet that wrote about the tragic events that unfolded this past week quipped,
“‘It’s important for caregivers to set aside time for themselves and seek help when needed,’ Shiener said.
“‘When a caregiver neglects themselves, that’s when they get overwhelmed, that’s when they feel guilty, that’s then they feel a sense of resentment, that’s when they get discouraged … and that’s when something bad happens.’”
By all accounts, Kelli Stapleton did everything within her power to help her daughter, and to get her daughter appropriate help from outside sources. She asked for help over and over, for years. That kind of patronizing armchair psychology ignores how utterly defective and broken is the system that is supposed to help families like the Stapletons.
Everyone who is writing about the Stapleton family now is offering some form of “It’s not right what she did, but . . .” I can’t even categorize it into right or wrong. It’s just tragic. Like Andrea Yates story, there are no villains here, no criminals or bad guys – only victims. I don’t know the Stapleton family, nor do I know what drove Kelli to attempt to kill herself and her daughter, but I can only imagine that it was pure desperation, and perhaps an act of mercy as she understood it at the time.
What will happen now? I don’t think anybody knows to what extent Issy might recover. Her mother is being held in jail without bail. There will be an investigation and likely a trial at some point. Perhaps the jury will decide, too, that Kelli is not a villain and should not be criminalized. But the damage has already been done. There is no possible good outcome to this story now.