Research has shown that mothers of children with autism have the highest rate of stress compared to parents of children with any other special needs. Recently, Kelli Stapleton, a mother of a 14-year-old daughter with autism, allegedly tried to kill herself and her child by using carbon monoxide poisoning. The police rescued them and Mrs. Stapleton is expected to be charged with attempted murder. The first question that comes to mind is: What exactly drove this woman to try and kill herself and her child?
Of course we sympathize with the girl, a victim. But do we also feel sorry for the mother who may not have been able to deal with the stress of raising a child with autism?
I believe clinicians, educators, government officials, journalists and religious leaders should ask what we can learn from this case. How can we prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again?
Jewish parents of children with autism who participated in my dissertation research gave me some insight into the stressors they face: financial challenges, feeling embarrassed by their son or daughter’s behaviors and not being accepted or by other individuals in their community.
Parents experiencing these challenges need to develop friends, connect and share experiences with other men and women who have faced or are facing similar experiences. They need an environment to share advice with other parents of children with special needs. These connections can be a significant resource as men and women realize they are not alone.
Ultimately professionals and parents need to come together to help build supportive programs that will help prevent a parent from feeling the need to take their own life or the life of their child with autism. A religious environment that offers such a program and opportunity would allow parents to connect with other mother and fathers within the comfort of their shared religious community, while completing religious practices together or discussing similar religious beliefs. Meanwhile, parents will be able to bond by sharing experiences related to their raising their child with special needs. We must develop intervention programs that bring families together and allow them to draw on their religious beliefs, ritual practices and community as a way to support and guide each other.
Frances Victory is a Developmental Psychology PhD candidate at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org