Mother accused of attempting to murder her autistic daughther.

Here. Kelly Stapleton locked herself and her teenage daughter Issy in a car with burning coals. Both survived the poisoning although the daughter is on life support. The story is harrowing and the comments over the internet divided between those who have some sympathy for the mother and those who point out that whereas Kelly could get help, she was to all intent and purposes Issy’s support system.

Of possible relevance is some research that has come out recently on the stress levels experienced by mothers of autistic children. This piece claims that it is on a par with the level of stress experienced by combat soldiers.

Very little gets said, in either of these pieces and elsewhere, about fathers of autistic children. It would be easy to explain this away by saying that mothers of autistic children, like mothers of neuro-typical children do most of the work. However having an autistic child more often than not requires the involvement of at least two adults, whether they like it or not. Are journalists simply writing them out because they don’t expect them to play any role in their child’s life?

7 thoughts on “Mother accused of attempting to murder her autistic daughther.

  1. I’ve read that many couples of autistic children split up (see e.g. here), and I presume it is usually the mother left holding the baby. This could account at least in part for the disparity.

  2. Does it seem a little weird to anyone to compare the experience of parenting an autistic child to combat? Also, does giving reasons for this woman’s crime perhaps blame the victim of the crime instead of the perpetrator of the crime? If a situation is stressful, does that justify violence? If not, then why put a study that relies upon a medicalization of disability that compares living with a normal human variance (autism) to war?

  3. Delft: I’ve also read the divorce rate of autism parents aren’t really much higher than for parents of neurotypical kids. It may be that the difference used to be more pronounced because ‘experts’ used to blame mothers for autism (the refrigerator mother theory) which would put somewhat of a strain on a marriage.
    Anonymous: I’m sometimes tempted to compare any sort of parenting to combat, and there’s a lot of fighting in parenting an autistic kid – not with the kid, but with the institutions that are supposed to help. In the case of Kelly and Issy, they’d just tried and failed to get a decent school place: I imagine that must feel particularly stressful. Of course I agree with you that no amount of stress justifies trying to kill a child – but then I don’t imagine that Kelly is feeling justified in her actions right now. Those we need to watch out for are the people who would use an incident like this to up the ill feeling against autistic kids that we see a lot of in the media at the moment. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do more to acknowledge the stress that parents of autistic kids are under when they try to make a place for their children in the neurotypical world.

  4. Research has estimated divorce rates for parents of children with autism are around 75% (higher than the national average a good bit.) Mothers tend to be left in the primary-parenting roles because the natural male drive to “fix things” is rarely possible in dealing with autism. Also, because autism is genetic, many times the father could have some variation of autism himself and struggle to connect with their children in a “typical” fashion. As for combat stress, yes, that is certainly that stressful at times. Fearing for your child’s life and safety at levels “neuro-typical” parents will rarely (if ever) face leaves your nerves tapped out and on edge without end. In combat soldiers are always on high alert, never allow to let their guard down. Parents with children that have autism are on that same high-allert 24/7/365… no wonder we need additional support.

  5. How exactly does pointing out that two activities are both extremely stressful amount to comparing the two in any other way? I’ve never been in combat, so I can’t compare the two firsthand, but with one of my two autistic children the level of stress is nearly constant when he’s home. Most of my attention is reserved for keeping him from breaking things, trying to get out of the house, pushing his little brother or sister, throwing food on the floor, and so on. Just as most non-parents have no clue what it’s like to have children (even if they have some sense of what it’s like to spend some of their time watching kids), I would say that parents of typical children don’t have a good handle on what it’s like to raise an autistic child or a child with any other disability or mental health issue. It obviously will vary with the child (my two with autism are extremely different, even with the same diagnosis). But it completely changes how you function if you have a child you constantly have to watch who doesn’t increase in safety with age and maturity but is actually capable of causing more damage, who doesn’t allow you to sit down for any length of time to get work done or to relax, who makes going most places with your family either very difficult or nearly impossible. It affects what you can do with any other kids you might have, where you can go as a family, how much time you can spend developing the other kids’ interests or help with their homework, how much time you can devote to anything other than your children when they are home (i.e. zero).

    I honestly don’t know how anyone could spend time with someone as severely affected by autism as one of my sons, seeing the cognitive obstacles, lack of sensory integration, inability to develop certain moral abilities, communication difficulties, emotional disregulation, and so on and then act as if there’s nothing medically problematic about autism. But even if you want to resist that there are any medical issues at all, surely no one can deny that it’s extremely hard to raise someone who is severely affected in these ways, and it’s extremely hard for me to recognize that this is a just another way of being that isn’t any worse than any other way of being, as is the trend in disability circles nowadays. (See Elizabeth Barnes’ work on disability and well-being for some good arguments that any disability should be seen as at least locally bad for one to have in terms of what one loses by having it, even if we’re going to be more reluctant to make assessments of whether someone is globally better off or worse off because of a disability.) It’s clear to me that autism can have good and bad things to it, but in many cases the bad makes life so difficult that it’s life-altering in ways that no one can argue are good. it doesn’t mean you’re demeaning the person who is affected in such ways to recognize how much stress is involved in being one of the caregivers who has to help manage the behavior almost all of the time when the child in question is not at school, who has to plan how such management will take place, who has to sort out how to manage the child in public, and how to coordinate that with what you might be doing for any other children you might have.

    I’ve seen people state the supposed statistic that parents of kids with disabilities are more prone to splitting up than other parents, but I’ve never seen anyone source the claim, and I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling real information on it. It might be true, and it wouldn’t surprise me, but if it is then most mentions of it have the same epistemic status as urban legends. I, for one, can’t imagine how anyone could bring themselves to abandon their family in such a situation. I think I’m probably less likely to consider leaving my family, however hard it is to function as this particular family, than I would be if I didn’t have children with disabilities. But I don’t know if there are any studies on how many people are more like me and how many are more likely to abandon their families because of the stress.

  6. I suspect the report relates to the effect on mothers rather than on fathers because, in many cases, the reality is that mothers are in the frontline. I work with parents of children with additional needs, and in 95% of these cases, fathers are often “at work”, so it is often solely the mother I support. In almost every instance over the six years since I have been doing this job, supporting in excess of 50 mothers of autistic children, these women, a long time before diagnosis, present with a certainty that “something is wrong” with their child, based on the child’s behaviours. In addition to convincing agencies who can offer support that their child is “not just badly behaved”, my experience has been that they have also had to convince their partners. As primary caregivers, and the majority of primary caregivers are undoubtedly still women, mothers are well placed to observe and compare their child’s behaviour with that of other children, so tend to be alert to anomalies sooner. They often report a sense of: isolation, of lack of understanding and meaningful support on the part of partners and extended family, and of the need to fight their child’s corner, often against fathers with unrealistic expectations. It surprises me not a jot to think that many mothers report a more intense response to the issues arising with the care of an autistic child than fathers do.

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