Headlines: Abuse and Empathy



WARNING: this post discusses child abuse

We are two weeks into Autism Awareness Month and I count three casualties so far. Two stories in the news this week, of three autistic children murdered or abused by their parents and caretakers.

In Washington, two autistic boys (ages 5 and 7) were discovered locked in a cage, where their father and his fiancee kept them every day, in unsanitary conditions. They weren’t allowed to walk around the house or to go to school. I don’t know their names. Their father, John Eckhart, told police, “What am I supposed to do? Let them run around the house? They’re autistic.”

In Massachusetts, Kristin LaBrie was found guilty of “attempted murder, assault and battery on a disabled person and a child, and child endangerment,” after she withheld chemotherapy drugs from her 9-year-old autistic son, Jeremy Fraser. This actually happened years ago, but was in the news again this week because of the sentencing. Jeremy was non-verbal and had lymphoma (blood cancer). He had been getting treatment at a local hospital, and his cancer was in remission. When he was moved home from the hospital, doctors gave his mother medication to give to him, and predicted that he would recover. But LaBrie did not administer the drugs, and Jeremy’s cancer recurred, this time as leukemia. Jeremy died in March 2009. This week, LaBrie was sentenced to 8-10 years in jail, and 5 years on probation.

These are only the cases which have made it into the news this week. There are many more autistic people out there, right now, facing abuse and neglect in their homes, in their schools, in institutions. Their suffering is being permitted, hidden, or ignored.

Autism “experts” have already spoken up, defending the parents involved in these two cases. Neatha Lefevre, of the Autism Society of Washington, presented a stunningly sunny picture of the Oregon case. She told reporters: “The behaviors [of an autistic child] can be very challenging.” Referring to Eckhart, who kept his sons in a dirty cage, she said, “When [parents] do this extreme, they feel this is the safest way to keep their children. The family will choose extremes because they don’t have good information.”

As for the Massachusetts case, apparently even the prosecutor “[expressed] sympathy for the challenges of caring for a sick, disabled child.” TIME Magazine ran an article which began by asking readers to place themselves in Kristin LaBrie’s shoes: “Imagine you are a single mother suffering from depression, overwhelmed with caring for an autistic, nonverbal and developmentally disabled son. If he were diagnosed with cancer, what would you do?” The article quotes a Boston-area attorney as saying:

“It can be so overwhelming for a single parent to deal with a child who is autistic, nonverbal, and developmentally delayed. It is cruel to add to that burden a diagnosis of cancer and a requirement that the mom administer medicine that will cause the child even more pain.”

TIME also quotes medical ethicist Cynthia Rushton, whose take on a mother withholding life-saving drugs was: “I suspect this mother was really trying to do the best she could for him … what does it mean to be a good parent in this circumstance?” The article’s author writes, “Was justice done? It’s hard to know. Certainly, disabled children have rights. But moms do too, and it appears that LaBrie did not have adequate support.”

As with most cases in which a parent abuses or murders a disabled child, there are a lot of voices urging us to feel empathy for the parent, to imagine how hard it is to have an autistic child. As far as I know, these “experts” have yet feel empathy for the child, to imagine how hard it is to be an autistic child with abusive or murderous parents.

Meanwhile, former PBS news anchor Robert MacNeil is returning to television with a special report called Autism Now. In a promotional interview, MacNeil described autism this way:

“It delays the most — delays or impairs for life — the most human thing we have, which is our ability to look into each others eyes and feel that other person’s existence and what might be going on in their mind, and to empathize with them. That is denied — largely denied — to children with autism.”

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg addresses this claim with an open letter, posted here.

Every day, autistic people are being murdered and abused by people who are supposed to provide them with love and care. And every day, people tell each other that autistic people are the ones who lack empathy, never pointing out that often, it is neurotypical people who do not have empathy for us.

Let’s take a moment to remember the connection between people who speak about us as though we are not human and people who treat us inhumanely.


A version of this essay was previously published on illusionofcompetence.blogspot.com, on April 16, 2011.