At the beginning of this month, a six-year-old autistic boy, London McCabe, died after his mother threw him into a river.
Almost immediately, people were defending her actions. NBC reported that her relatives said she had a mental breakdown, and described her as a “patient” and “loving” mother. She needed more resources, they said, for both her and her son.
I don’t really know what kind of a person thinks that a “patient and loving” mother is one who kills her own child. But apparently, there are a lot of people who feel that way.
In another article about the murder, NBC interviewed a psychologist and professor who was “surprised this doesn’t happen more often.” She went on to say that autistic children are essentially unable to reciprocate their mothers’ love — even though a number of non-verbal autistic people themselves can speak and understand other people. The LA times quoted a family friend, who described Jillian McCabe as feeling “isolated” and “desperate.” Unfortunately, this case, especially in its media and public reaction, is not abnormal.
When Kelli Stapleton tried to kill her daughter Issy last year, people tried to explain that she was “crazy” and “needed more help” in order to take care of her daughter. Just last month, in October, when she was sentenced to 10-22 years in prison for attempted murder, her ex-husband blamed himself for not protecting their daughter, but also said that Kelli wasn’t a “rational” person. This sentencing came after Kelli appeared on the Dr. Phil show, where he painted her as the “real victim” rather than her daughter.
That’s a view that many people seem to share. Some of the people I talked to about this case seemed to sympathize more with the caregivers, rather than with their victims. They’d say things like “It’s understandable” or “They’re under a lot of stress, so I get it.” My parents told me that the mothers, in both cases, are just “crazy” and need psychiatric help, in a tone that implied that mentally ill people are just prone to murder.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that there were about 43.7 million adults with some kind of mental illness in 2012. If mentally ill people just happen to have an affinity for murder, there would be a lot more people getting killed in this country, and also around the world, than there currently are. Not to make light of murder, but to suggest that mentally ill people have murderous impulses is simply incorrect.
More importantly, saying that it’s “understandable” that parents kill their autistic children is ableist and also a huge problem.
Ableism, for those who don’t know, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.” In saying that it makes sense for people to kill autistic kids, you’re essentially devaluing autistic lives and claiming that they don’t matter as much as the lives of people who aren’t autistic. That’s ableist. Autistic people, because they are people, deserve to have lives that are as fulfilling as non-autistic people’s lives, and they deserve whatever support they need for their lives.
I’m not saying that it isn’t hard to be a parent to an autistic person. I’m not a parent, so obviously I wouldn’t know all the intricacies of raising children. But regardless, no parent should be defended or justified for killing their child because it was “too hard.” Yes, parents of autistic children need more resources, whether financial or even just advice for understanding their kids. But that doesn’t mean that murdering your autistic child is justifiable because you don’t have said resources.
If you think it’s hard for the parents of an autistic child, think about the children themselves. To have parents who view them as a burden, as a problem and an embarrassment, as Jillian McCabe seemed to think her son London was. She talked about how he made family gatherings “awkward” for her because he didn’t behave like a neurotypical child, and how hard that was on her. I’m sure awkward dinners suck, but that still doesn’t even partially justify murder. What about how London felt, having a mother who viewed him as a difficulty? Where is the sympathy for him and other autistic children, whose parents think of them as burdens or consider murder as a way to “escape” them?
And this isn’t about being pro-life or pro-choice. This is not about the morality of abortion, or the rights of fetuses, because autistic people are not fetuses. They have already been born and they exist outside of someone’s uterus. In becoming a parent, in giving birth to an autistic person, you take on the responsibility to care for your child the way you’re responsible for any child.
Autistic children, and autistic people, are not a burden on society. They are not puzzle pieces to be solved, because they don’t fit into our neurotypical vision of people. They are a diverse group of people, with interests, thoughts, and feelings. Yes, some autistic people will need a caretaker for their whole lives. That still does not make them a burden. The way society functions can make things difficult for them, but when they’re allowed to grow and are provided the resources they need, they can accomplish so much.Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, recently disclosed that he thinks he’s autistic, and his description corresponds with the way many autistic people experience things in their lives. I’m pretty sure he counts as a successful person.
This view that people have, where autistic people have difficulty with everything and cannot exist without a caretaker, hurts autistic people and feeds into this idea that they’re a burden, and that their murders are justified.