In the last two weeks, you may have run across the story of Issy Stapleton, a Michigan teen with autism who nearly died at the hands of her mother, Kelli Stapleton. Issy spent several days in the ICU, unresponsive and in a coma, but awoke when her family made the decision to remove her from the ventilator. Now, the young woman is making a miraculous recovery—able to speak, walk and laugh.
Kelli Stapleton awaits trial. When charged with attempted murder, she was held without bond.
Funny, when I think about it, how you’ve likely heard about Kelli and Issy Stapleton on the national media now, while six months ago, when Kelli was waging battle to get insurance to cover her child’s inpatient behavioral treatment, you likely had no idea. While Kelli was searching for a bed in an inpatient facility that dealt with these specific behavioral problems in children with autism… while Kelli was fundraising and trying to bring national attention to her daughter’s plight… when Kelli got her daughter into the center who would help modify her behavior and then was told her daughter would be coming home two months early because insurance pulled the funding… when Kelli wrote on her blog that she was suffering from battle fatigue and didn’t know what else to do when the public school district her husband works for told them they wouldn’t accommodate her daughter, wouldn’t allow her daughter to attend school there this year…
You see, Kelli Stapleton was also a blogger, and many in the community had been following her plight over the last seven months. I don’t know if there are adequate words to describe the shock and pain many experienced when they found out Kelli had gone the route of attempted family annihilator.
There has been much ‘debate’ on the internet about what Kelli did. While most do not condone or attempt to justify what she did, there are those who attempt to understand what Kelli must have been going through, and how a mother could get to the mental space where killing yourself and your child is perceived as your best option. There are others who want to dissect the status quo of mental health services, hoping to make sense of what occurred and how it may be avoided. Then there are those in the community who are highly displeased we’re discussing this from the perspective of Kelli; as it seems we’re ignoring the real victim of this, Issy, in an effort to empathize with Kelli. There are even some individuals who wish Kelli would be charged with a hate crime, since she committed this act against a minor with a disability.
As you can imagine, the seemingly disparate views can lead to interchanges that are quite contentious, with each side condemning the others. I don’t know if debate can solve this problem (and I don’t believe it’s going to help the Stapleton family’s current situation), but how else would we try to prevent this from happening again, unless we—and by ‘we’, I mean everyone; not just parents of children with autism or individuals with autism who are advocating for themselves—start talking about this, and keep talking about this, long after the news cycle ends?
Right now, there has been relatively little research on family annihilators or even spree killings. We know there are often mental health issues involved, but there’s not clear picture of who might act in this horrible manner. In fact, the most recent study to be released (last month) only looked at 71 cases, primarily of men acting against their families, and the cases were divided into four archetypes: anomic (economic—the parent loses their job and can no longer support the family), disappointed (family life was not what it seemed to be), paranoid (perceptions of someone or something attempting to destroy the family) and self- righteous (the family has not been raised properly). None of these archetypes really, wholly, apply to the Stapleton case. Why is that? Why hasn’t there been better research on the issue?
In order for us move forward—to get anything resolved on this front—we must keep talking. It doesn’t matter if you are an expert, a service provider, an individual with autism, a parent of a child with autism, or a layperson. We have to keep talking. And, we have to stop arguing with one another. It doesn’t work to just condemn the mother, the system, the disease. We have to listen to each group and try to come to some semblance of understanding of the different perspectives. We may not agree, but we can no longer dismiss each other’s opinions. We have to, at the very least, attempt to keep this from happening again.