Neurodiversity Awareness/Appreciation

Neurodiversity Awareness/Appreciation

Thursday, September 5, 2013

My Thoughts on Kelli Stapleton

I wasn't going to write this post, because I know it will make some people angry at me, and I hate people being mad at me... but I was doing a lot of thinking about it all day long.
 (For those of you who haven't heard of her, Kelli Stapleton is a mother/blogger who tried to take the lives of herself and her 14-year-old autistic daughter the other day.)
I never met Kelli Stapleton, although I read her blog a few times. The most I ever read about Kelli was in an untitled post on the blog Mostly True Stuff. The blogger there, Lexi, was friends with Kelli. Lexi also has a child with autism, and actually just found out that her youngest daughter, who has Down syndrome, has autism as well. She wrote about her fears that Kelli would be villianized online for what she did... whereas the friend she knew and loved seemed completely different from the actions she took. 
When I visited Kelli's blog today, I saw that it was true. While a lot of people are expressing shock that the whole thing happened, others are specifically saying Kelli is an evil person who deserves to spend the rest of her life in prison. 
And I wanted to share my thoughts. 

First I want to say that killing people is always bad, and killing children is especially bad, because they are children and they can't protect themselves as well and they need us, as adults, to care for them and keep them safe. Parents are specifically expected to protect their children from harm, taking a bullet for their children if they have to. OFCOURSE it is never okay to kill your children. 

On a somewhat unrelated note, my grandmother had paranoid schizophrenia. It was very severe and difficult to treat. She heard voices telling her to do things. At one point, while my dad and his siblings were still little, she heard voices telling her that she should kill her children, that she needed to kill them. My grandmother believed the voices were real. Luckily, she complained about them to someone, worried about the fact that she might have to kill her kids for whatever reason the voices were telling her to do it. My grandfather intervened, my grandmother was hospitalized, and her children were safe. My grandmother would end up being in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life, undergoing very invasive treatments that never completely worked, but at least her children were safe. 
It could have definitely ended differently. At that time, my grandmother had been in the psychiatric hospitals before. She knew it meant being locked up for months, maybe even years, at a time, and being subjected to things like electroshock therapy. What if she had truly felt like killing herself and her children was the only way to save her family? Or what if she had tried to get help, and nobody had believed her? She could have murdered her children. She could have spent the rest of her life in prison. But was my grandmother a bad or evil person? I know she wasn't. Life handed her a shitload of lemons, though. A whole shitload of lemons. 

I think life handed Kelli Stapleton a shitload of lemons, too. Not all people with autism are violent. Kelli's daughter Issy was. She was also large, and strong. In one video taken at one of Issy's schools, it took two staff members, including a man, to pull Issy off of her mother and subdue her. Both staff members were bruised and bleeding by the time they got the child, who was then about 12, to sit down. She injured people and destroyed property every day. She had caused her mother a head injury that left her in the hospital with a Level 2 trauma. She put Kelli's other children in danger. 

Issy had been in and out of treatment programs and schools. The family had an impossible time trying to get insurance or other funding to pay for the level of intense help that Issy needed. They were pretty much told that, for Issy to get the best level of care, they would have to relinquish their parental rights. That was not an option for Issy's parents, who were determined to keep their family together

Kelli once wrote in her blog about what it was like to parent Issy, versus what her parental instincts told her to do. 
"If she is sad about something I should NOT go and try to comfort her.  She gets no comfort from it and I’ll likely get hit.
If she wants something I should not give it to her.   She has to earn everything.
If she is sitting quietly for long periods of time I should not try to talk to her.  She’ll get mad and hit me.  I remember feeling that way about my mom and I’m NOT a child with autism!  Hahaha!  Soooooo totally normal?
If I have to tell her 'no' and I feel badly about it.  It does no good to explain.  Once we wanted to go to the fair.  We got there and it was closed.  I said how sorry I was and it was a bummer.  I used my (sincere) but sad voice and got hit.  Just saying 'no' and moving on is better.
It’s generally better to avoid her.   I need to step in when I know I’m going to be successful and not get hit.  We have 14 years to re-shape.
Going up to her at any given time and hugging her and telling her I love her.   Yea, that doesn’t thrill her.  So am I doing it for me?  Or her?  I don’t want to spark an aggression so I’ll just love her from afar!  Or wait for her to initiate a big ‘ol hug for me!"

In her last post, Kelli wrote that Issy had just come home from a treatment program that had seemed successful. The program had taught the family a behavioral plan that would need to be used 24/7 by every adult who worked with or dealt with Issy. They were getting her enrolled in the local school, where she would work with a 1:1 aide on her academic subjects and then join peers for things like gym and art. Kelli wrote that she felt like things were finally coming together for her family. But later in the same post (it seemed like Kelli might have came back and edited it with new information later) things were falling apart again. The teacher who was supposed to be working with Issy at the school was not enthused about the behavior plan or the academic work that Kelli hoped for Issy to do. Kelli and the teacher exchanged harsh words. The next day, the school district let Kelli and her husband know that Issy was no longer welcome at their school. The district officials told Kelli that she should just homeschool Issy.

Kelli believed that she had "ruined everything" for her family, by pushing too hard. Now there was no school for Issy to go to. In the end, it seemed that the only option was for Kelli to move with Issy to a city two and a half hours away, near the treatment center where Issy had been at before, so that Issy could continue attending school there where she had been relatively successful. Kelli's husband and other children would stay behind. 
Essentially, despite all of the efforts of Kelli and her husband, the family was going to be broken up one way or another. 
The next day, Kelli and Issy were found unconscious in that van with the charcoal grills burning inside of it.

Is it ever okay to kill your child? No. How about when your child has autism? Definitely still no. But this wasn't a mother who was just tired of caring for her child, or was mad at her child, or felt like her child was holding her back in life. This was a mother who had dedicated every minute of her life to the wellbeing of this child, and was just running out of options, being told that her child was not welcome anywhere. 
And maybe, logically, letting Issy go into foster care would have been a better choice than trying to kill the girl. But think about this... once you sign away your parental rights, that child is no longer yours. You no longer have a say in what happens to the child. The state can send the child anywhere, make any decision for what happens to her, and you have no input. Throughout everything, Issy's parents tried to protect her, even when they were in danger themselves. Letting Issy get taken away permanently would not have felt like an option to them. 
So in the end, I believe Kelli was trying to protect Issy, even when she made that horrible decision to try to end both of their lives. She was trying to set Issy free from a world where she could no longer keep her safe. 

It was a terrible choice. But I don't think Kelli is a terrible person. I really don't. And I know a lot of people are saying, "If Kelli doesn't get punished, more parents of autistic children are going to think it is okay to kill their children." 
But I feel like we should not make Kelli an example of what should happen to parents who attempt to murder their children. We should use this story as an example of what can happen to a family when a child with severe special needs, a child who is violent and out of control, is not able to get services. All of these different agencies said they didn't want to deal with Issy, they didn't think they could meet Issy's needs, maybe Kelli should either abandon Issy or keep her at home at all times. Issy was the sole responsibility of her parents, and nobody else was obligated to help. Yet, when an overwhelmed mother is pushed to the brink of madness, all fingers are pointing right at her! 

I don't know how to end this post, except to say a prayer for Kelli's family. I pray that Kelli will get the help she needs... instead of being tossed away in prison, she is going to need a lot of help to deal with her actions and what led to them, and I pray that she's able to get that help. Her family too. And Issy... who, by the way, is still alive, although in intensive care... I hope she will finally get the resources she needs so that she can safely stay with her family, attend school, and be part of the world. 

Issy Stapleton, age 14


  1. I'm so glad you posted this! You have exhibited a great deal of maturity, empathy and compassion. I hope writing it helped you work through the big, BIG emotions this story stirred in you.

  2. It sounds like she was desperate and at the end of her rope. People in these situations often find themselves without help. It's sad that it came to this.

  3. I was wondering what your thoughts on this might be. I'm glad you posted on it. The whole situation is just absolutely heartbreaking. My heart goes out to the entire family. This post was beautifully written by the way.

  4. very sad...hope this family receives the help and not punishment.

  5. I hope this post gets seen by a wide, wide audience. It's a great piece of writing, and an inspiring example of compassion.

  6. I know Kelli, at least online. I never saw anyone fight so hard for their child. It's heartbreaking.

  7. I think your post is fantastic! I agree with you, Kelli just couldn't figure out how to deal with it anymore. I am sure trying to kill her child was a decision made out of desperation and love.

  8. Thank you for articulating my thoughts exactly when you wrote "So in the end, I believe Kelli was trying to protect Issy, even when she made that horrible decision to try to end both of their lives. She was trying to set Issy free from a world where she could no longer keep her safe." When I first read about the murder/suicide attempt, I was horrified that a mom would attempt to kill her child. As I continued to research and read Kelli's blog, I was deeply, deeply saddened by the desperation so evident in that last post. What a dark, tragic place to be in when one believes murder/suicide is the only answer. We need to keep this family in our prayers instead of heaping judgement upon Kelli Stapleton.

  9. No. Just no. Following a 6+ month respite from caring for her daughter AND a Medicaid waiver that paid for trained, professional 1:1 staff to be with Issy during all her waking hours, Kelli tried to kill her girl.

    She was rested. She was supported. She hadn't been responsible for the day to day care of Issy for 6+ months for gods sake!!!!

    Despite all this help, she decided her girl was unworthy of living. May she rot in hell.

  10. My heart goes out to the Stapleton Family. I understand what Kelli was going through. I have 2 autistic children,21 year old daughter and a 9 year old son. My son is very aggressive and violent. I'm a single parent doing it alone. I have a lot of family members, but are narrow minded about autism and when I vent about the episodes my son encounters, their comments is not helpful. Parents that are caring for autistic children needs all the help than can get. People need to understand what Kelli was going through and not condem her. I would never want to hurt my children, but I think Kelli must have had I nervous breakdown.

  11. That is what I think, others don't understand. You know that saying,"Don't judge me until you walk a mile in my shoes"

  12. I think you should get all the facts BEFORE defending Kelli, which obviously, you didn't. That woman had more help than a lot of people have.

  13. Thanks for writing this, it was needed to be said. Also, I read today that Matt, Kelli's husband filed for divorce and sole custody. I guess intellectually I shouldn't be surprised, but for some reason I was shocked. I wonder who's going to be the primary caregiver of Issy now, since he probably still has to work to support the family.

  14. You should do more fact checking on this women. She had a lot of help. She had in home care-givers for some time. The child was away from her for six months before this. The woman herself said that the child didn't have these "outbursts" for years up until recently. One of the caregivers in the home stated that while they were there that Kelli locked herself in the bedroom and stayed away from all the children. Kelli called into a radio show and went on and on about how bad she had it and even though the psychologist on the radio show told her that she might want to seek help and that everything she was saying sounded relatively normal (for that extremely hard situation) and that demonizing the child and seeking sympathy may not be the way to go, and she might want to get help, she ignored them. She wrote in her blogs after spending time with her family that she quote "felt murdery." I cannot imagine how hard this is on parents. These poor children need so much help and obviously it can be overwhelming. Those sympathizing with her I think she be even more mad at her. Meaning those of you with violent autistic kids going through it everyday - would you murder your child? I can't imagine your pain, but you do it every day and this woman just decided after not even having to take care of her for 6 months, that she was going to kill her. My hats are off to all who go through this and raise these children. However I have 0 sympathy for one who ignores very good advice, has tons of help ( in home care giver), has an apparently caring partner, then chooses this route rather than the many other choices she could have made.


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