Content warning: detailed discussion of filicide; discussion of Applied Behavior Analysis.
“If the parent is so antagonistic toward their child that they’re contemplating violence, then something needs to change and it’s not the child — it’s the parent.” Samantha Crane, Director of Public Policy, Autistic Self-Advocacy Network
On this blog, we talk a lot about “benevolent” ableism-people being overly helpful or patronizing toward disabled people. But there’s a much darker side to ableism, too. Like other minority groups, disabled people are disproportionately targets of violence and abuse. You may not hear it in the news, but there were 128 disability hate crimes in the U.S. in 2017
But unlike other minority groups, disabled people are targets of one of the most shocking forms of violence: attempted or actual murder by their family members.
The Ruderman Family Foundation reviewed media coverage between 2011 and 2015 and found reports of 219 disabled people in the United States and Canada who were killed by their primary caregivers-mainly children killed by parents, or elderly people killed by spouses. That number, likely an under-report, represents almost one murder per week
It’s a trend that can’t be explained as a few extraordinary cases.
What could possibly drive a parent to harm their own child?
I’m going to present a case study, of an attempted murder that occurred in 2013. And we can examine what happened, and what might have prevented it.
Kelli Stapleton lived in rural Michigan with her husband and three children. Her middle child, Issy, is autistic. According to Kelli, Issy had been aggressive since she was two years old, mainly toward her mother but also at school. When Issy was 13 years old, her mother enrolled her in a private behavioral treatment center for 7 months, and with a strict regimen of positive reinforcement for “good” behavior, the aggression decreased. But, when Issy came home, she started hitting Kelli again. And, Kelli learned that the local public school was unwilling to implement Issy’s strict behavior plan.
Kelli broke down, and devised a plan of escape for herself and her daughter. On the Tuesday morning after Labor Day 2013, she packed up an old van with pillows, blankets, two hibachi grills, and fixings for s’mores. She drove Issy into the woods where they shared s’mores. She gave Issy a double dose of her antipsychotic medication and brought the still-lit grills into the van, and shut the doors. As they slept, the van filled with smoke and carbon monoxide. By the time they were rescued that evening, Issy had developed a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for four days. Kelli was charged with attempted murder. Ultimately, she pleaded guilty to first-degree child abuse and was sentenced to 10-22 years in prison.
I’m not even going to get into the horrifying amount of support that Kelli got on social media, with posts arguing that this was her only option. Nor will I talk about the disturbing trend of journalists centering disability filicide stories on the killer’s “burden” rather than on the victim. Or the fact that, unlike Kelli, many people who kill their disabled family members get off with much lighter sentences than those who kill their nondisabled family members.
No, I’m a social psychologist interested in predicting and controlling human behavior. So I don’t want to talk about the after, I want to talk about the before. I delved into Kelli’s blog and media appearances to find out what kinds of thoughts, emotions, and behavior precede such a tragedy.
And, the clues were strikingly obvious.
Kelli started a blog exactly one year before her crime, called “the Status Woe.” The blog started innocently enough, with some self-deprecating humor (not involving her daughter) about a bout of diarrhea on a camping trip. But then, the blog quickly turned to the evils of autism. As I read, it became clear that Kelli was all out of love or compassion for her daughter. She had been on a lifelong journey of trying to cure her daughter’s autism, starting with a rigid home program of applied behavior analysis (ABA) during Issy’s toddler years. She’d tried all kinds of diets and supplements, and behavior plans, to no avail.
In one blog post, titled “Autism’s Hard to Love Club,” Kelli wrote that “I have a daughter firmly planted in autism’s Hard to Love club” and then she preceded to describe issy’s overweight and poor personal hygiene to total strangers. In another post, deceptively titled “Inclusion: Doing It Right,” Kelli wrote about how she would draft the “mothers of the class”-peers and older children with helping dispositions- at Issy’s school to be her “helpers” and assigned “friends” in elementary school, and how all the kids wanted to be Issy’s “friend” so they would gain status and approval from adults. (Disability Wisdom readers know that’s not real inclusion!) Embedded in this post about fake inclusion is the comment that when new kids meet Issy, they discover that “Clearly she isn’t “normal.” Kelli also posted videos of Issy’s aggressions on her public blog, and the videos were edited such that the cause of the aggressions was never clear. She blamed Issy’s aggressions on “autism, hormones, and whoknowswhatelse.”
Kelli also gave a radio interview around the same time as she wrote her blog. On the interview, Kelli admitted that her ABA treatment may have contributed to Issy’s aggressions, saying, “I’ve been in her face since before she was two years old” reinforcing Issy’s every act as she tried to shape non-autistic behavior. On the air, Kelli didn’t sound like a murderer. But, her entire focus was on treating Issy. when the psychiatrist on the show asked Kelli if she had gotten counseling for herself or the rest of the family who was impacted by Issy’s aggressions, Kelli kept saying she just needed to focus on Issy and getting Issy’s behaviors under control before taking therapy herself. The psychiatrist warned that aggression was a family issue, that the entire family was involved and that “eventually, someone is going to get hurt.”
I cannot pretend to imagine how hard it must be to live with a family member who is aggressive on a regular basis. Undoubtedly, stress and burnout contributed to Kelli’s tragic choice. But, aggression is not an inevitable consequence of autism. Antisocial behavior never occurs in a vacuum. It not only impacts the entire family, but it is caused and reinforced by interplay between one’s internal neurology and the external environment. And perhaps one of the least-appreciated factors contributing to a disabled person’s alleged behavioral difficulties is ableism in the family unit.
I wonder what it would have been like for me, if my parents had kept me on such a tight ABA leash, getting in my face and correcting my every action since before I was two years old. If I knew that my parents not-so-secretly wished I wasn’t born the way I was and did everything they could to try to change me. If my parents filmed me in my most vulnerable moments and put those videos out along with weight-shaming comments on the Internet. If I had sensory needs my parents and teachers ignored. If I had no outlet for expressing my turbulent emotions during puberty, and if my attempts at communication were dismissed.
That’s right: I’d probably start hitting, too. And I’d probably keep aggressing if I learned that aggression was the only way for me to control my own life.
Issy Stapleton nearly died because of her mother’s ableism, plain and simple. In an interview with New York Magazine after her sentencing, Kelli recounted the day of the crime, saying of her fantasies of the afterlife on that day, “We will be done with autism completely … “For the first time
in my life I am going to be able to have a real conversation with her,
and see her. Get to know her, without the perseverations and the
aggression. In her real voice, not this robot voice.”
Kelli could not bring herself to accept the child she had. She tried in vain to change Issy, and Issy responded with aggression. The violence escalated until Kelli came to the conclusion that a murder-suicide was the only way for her to get the child she really wanted.
Preventing disability filicides goes far beyond just giving parents more respite services or better insurance coverage for therapies. (Indeed, Kelli was on her state’s waiver, where she had nnearly 24-hour help with Issy at home. Other parents with less support don’t hurt their children). Prevention needs to start much earlier. Anyone who plans to become a parent must get good, balanced information about disabilities and come to understand the normality of disability. Because, the statistics show that one in every 88 parents will bear an autistic child. Up to one in five parents will bear a child who, at some point in life, becomes disabled. Disability must be presented in our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods as a natural part of the human condition. People planning to become parents must have opportunities to examine their biases about disabilities and eventually come to accept the possibility of having children whose abilities might differ from their own.
From a policy perspective, this might mean having disability studies as a mandatory course in high schools. It might mean that whenever a child is diagnosed with any disability (whether in utero, at birth or later in childhood), the family is automatically connected with at least one self-advocate bearing the same disability. And, it means that when a child or teen presents with behavioral difficulties, assessment and treatment must focus on the entire family unit, not just the one family member manifesting symptoms.
We need to work together to eradicate ableism. It is literally a matter of life and death.
For Further Reading:
Kelli Stapleton Can’t Forgive Herself. Can You?
Untwisting Perceptions: Autism, Parenting, and Victimhood
The Cost of Noncompliance is Unreasonable
Kelli Stapleton. Still Relevant.