Mother Who Killed "Autistic" Infant and Negative Messages About Autism
I have not written in any depth about Stephanie Rochester, the woman who killed her six-month-old son Rylan because she thought he was showing signs of autism.
The best consideration of her case that I have read comes from Emily Willingham, who discusses her own experience with postpartum depression, and the likelihood that Rochester also suffered from it:
The mother, reports say, thought she had postpartum depression and commented to friends about it before she killed her infant. It was severe enough to metastasize into a psychosis that led her to kill her child out of, according to her, a fear that he was autistic. The DA involved in the case recently elected not to try her because of her ongoing mental state. According to reports, she was obsessed with the notion that her son was autistic and that his autism would destroy her life, her marriage, her finances, and her fun. Her husband filed for divorced within days of their son's murder, and he has also filed a wrongful death suit. She was aware enough of her actions to have, according to reports, hidden the blankets she ultimately used to suffocate the child on her final attempt. The story is horrific.
The mother's work experience prior to having the baby included two years working as a counselor at a children's hospital, where she had encountered children with autism. I do not know what the attitude of the professionals or parents at the hospital were about autism. What I do know is that if she had paid attention to any one of the thousands of fear-mongering news media reports about autism, she'd've been terrified if, in her mind, her son were showing signs of it. I know that if she'd paid any attention at all to what some organizations that purport to help autistic people say about it, she'd've been terrified at the prospect. I also know that if she'd read any of the verbiage on the Internet about "toxic" children, "monsters" whose "real selves" were "stolen" from their parents, she'd be terrified. Stories purporting to describe the horrific financial burdens of autism. Stories focusing on the horrific toll autism reportedly takes on marriages and families. Stories with the angle that autism destroys lives.
Actually, though, Rochester's involvement with autistic children went far beyond the occasional encounter:
Rochester told authorities that she worked for two years as a counselor with autistic kids at Children's Hospital and "can recognize the signs of autism." She said she was convinced her son, Rylan, had severe autism.
Children's Hospital Colorado became part of the Autism Treatment Network in 2008.
The Autism Treatment Network is one of the flagship efforts of Autism Speaks.
We know what Stephanie Rochester's attitude toward people with autism was:
She placed a plastic Target bag over Rylan's head as he slept and then put a blanket on top of his face, the affidavit said.
"She said that she had conducted research on the computer and read that carbon monoxide poisoning deaths don't hurt and you just go to sleep," Spurgeon wrote. "She did not want Rylan to hurt."
After a minute, she removed the bag, and Rylan was still breathing. She went downstairs, according to the affidavit, and ate dinner with her husband -- drinking wine and discussing selling their house.
"She and Lloyd talked about how they wanted to have fun in life," Spurgeon wrote. "Stephanie said that she knew they would not have fun while they were caring for a severely autistic child."
It is possible that Rochester's attitude had nothing to do messages she got about autistic children from her work at Children's Hospital. It is also possible that Autism Speaks had nothing to do with any negative attitudes she picked up there.
And-- this is important-- Rochester was not a reasonable person. Even if negative messages she picked up from Autism Speaks did affect her, that would not mean the organization should or could be blamed for Rylan's death.
However, that does not mean that people who are alarmed by this crime should not also be alarmed by the way Autism Speaks has talked about autistic people:
I know that Autism Speaks doesn't put out material like this anymore. I know that Alison Singer, now president of the Autism Science Foundation, doesn't talk like this anymore.
Except on YouTube.
In the three months since I last wrote about "Autism Every Day," the video from which the clip above is taken, it has been watched over 50,000 times on YouTube.
It seems outrageous to me to pretend that this has no effect on how people with autism are perceived. It also seems outrageous to me to leave out "Autism Every Day" when discussing the possible culpability of Autism Speaks in Rylan's death:
It's tempting when these horrifying stories about parents killing their children come out to play the blame game. Indeed, it's something we often can't resist. It's Age of Autism's fault because they present autism as so awful. It's Autism Speaks' fault because of that stupid sentence saying autism is more prevalent than three dreaded diseases. It's everybody who has ever complained about autism. It's everybody's fault but the woman who chose to kill her child. If only there wasn't negative things written about parenting a child with autism that woman wouldn't have done that. She was mentally ill. She chose, whether she was in her right mind or not, to take her child's life. That is not the fault of anyone on the internet, although it is comforting to think so.
I agree with much of what Kim Wombles says here-- it is not anyone else's fault that Stephanie Rochester killed her son. But to pretend that the most dangerous thing that Autism Speaks ever said is that "autism is more prevalent than three dreaded diseases" seems dishonest to me. If Kim wants to defend "Autism Every Day," I would love to read what she has to say. But I ask everyone to please stop pretending it doesn't exist when writing about Autism Speaks and negative messages. At least not while hundreds of people are still watching it every day.
And, in Rochester's case, there is a much more direct link: the hospital at which she counseled the families of autistic children is part of the Autism Treatment Network. The Autism Network is part of Autism Speaks. So, in her own small way, was Stephanie Rochester.
Pointing that out, and asking the people at Autism Speaks to re-examine the attitudes they display toward autistic people is not blaming them for Rylan's death. I've tried to make it clear that I believe even in creating "Autism Every Day" their intentions were good. But good intentions sometimes have unfortunate, unintended consequences.