I have watched over the past few days as friends from the autism community have expressed horror and confusion at the attempted murder of Issy Stapleton, allegedly at the hands of her mother, Kelli. There are people trying to make sense of madness, justify the inexcusable because of a broken system, vilify somebody who is clearly mentally wrecked, and confusing empathy for a parent in a desperate situation with sympathy for an alleged attempted murderer.
Most are hurting too much to hear what others are actually saying and too busy reading unintended meanings into words of grief and desperation to have a dialogue. So I am not going to write specifically about Kelli Stapleton, Dorothy Spourdalakis or Elizabeth Hodgins, as much as I want to address the issue of depression and despair that some parents of autistic children feel, how to best manage those feelings and hopefully keep them at bay.
Let me make this perfectly clear. There is NO justification for killing an innocent child.
When a story arises in which a parent tries to kill their autistic child, right away people want to talk about "the system" and how it is failing. The system IS failing these kids. But what we must understand is that parents are PART OF THE SYSTEM. WE are the last line of defense. WE are the ones that have to stay strong and fight on. We are the one part of the system that is supposed to be RIGHT. We push for insurance reform, we push to end discrimination, we battle bullies whether corporate or on the playground, and we tip the scales from hate and scorn to love and acceptance. If our kids cannot place their faith in US, then who can they trust?
In order to not become part of the failing system, parents must take care of themselves. I tell parents of autistic children constantly that their physical and mental health should be their top priority. There is a reason why when you receive the pre-flight instructions on a plane that they tell you to secure YOUR safety first. You cannot insure the safety of another if you are not in a safe place yourself. You are going to feel selfish looking out for yourself. Trust me, you are not. You are doing the most loving thing that you can do for your child; you are securing a happy and healthy attitude for yourself and maintaining a loving and safe home.
Some of the following examples may seem simple, but sometimes we just need a friendly reminder to get back to the basics and focus on what is important in life.
Make a date night with your significant other. Get out of the house for some one on one time but if you can't, then get the kids to bed and put down a blanket on the living room floor. Have a picnic in your living room while watching a movie or listening to music. Have some wine, be romantic... no autism talk. If you don't have a significant other, then make it a night out with friends. Cut loose and have a good time, even if it is only for a couple of hours. Make sure to LAUGH.
Find a creative outlet or a release. For me it is writing, advocacy and gaming. For you it may be painting, singing in a choir, knitting, scrapbooking or any number of activities. Just do something that you get pure enjoyment from and put a little time aside to do that if even for only 10-15 minutes a day.
Find a psychotherapist that you like and SEE him/her routinely. Friends and family are great, but there is something about venting to a neutral party that allows you to gain perspective and say things you may not feel comfortable saying to those you are familiar with for fear of judgment. Be open in these sessions and above all else, be honest. As parents we have to bottle up so much that the ability to be an open book is incredibly cathartic.
Don't fear medication. If your doctor recommends medication to help you battle depression, embrace the professional's opinion. Nobody is going to judge you as being weak or crazy... and if they do, who needs them? Get them out of your life.
I know it is difficult to think about, but parents also have to ask themselves openly and honestly, "Is my home the best and safest place for my child?" The answer may be "No." Your child's condition may be such that it is not safe for him/her or yourself to reside in the environment that you can supply at home. This may be a difficult realization for parents, but for extreme cases, it may be the safest option. You are not a failure if you have to seek assistance or have to place your child in a safer environment than you can provide at home after exhausting every possibility.
And finally, if you are reading this and you are in a dark place. If you are afraid that you may do harm to yourself or another, then PLEASE call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or call 911 and ensure your child's safety. Take your child to a police station and drop them off if need be and/or admit yourself to a hospital. For more information and resources you can also visit the Autism Speaks Crisis Intervention Resource.
Please take care of yourself. Love your child. Your child is an innocent. Do not make them pay because of a "system." You always have options. The choices may not be easy, but they are there. Take a deep breath and know that you are not alone. I promise you.
We can get through this together. Give your kids an extra tight hug tonight and while you are tucking them in I ask that you make a mental list of all of their positive qualities and you repeat them every night. Your child needs you to be happy and healthy. They will feed off of that energy and reciprocate it.
Let the rest of the system fail your child. You cannot afford to do so.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
For more by Lou Melgarejo, click here.
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