TW: ableism/ableist violence
Austin Anderson’s last days were spent in a Missouri field without food, without water, without the medication he required to stay alive. Among his last words were pleas to his mother, Kimberly Lightwine, to let him go home.
On Aug. 29, officers found Austin Anderson’s body. His brain was swollen, evidence of dehydration. Nearby, lying facedown in the grass was his mother. A few days earlier, after taking methamphetamines, Kimberly Lightwine drove Austin, who was both blind and autistic, to a field and stayed there to watch her son die (Washington Post, “‘Let God take you’: Woman said she left her blind, autistic son in field until he died, police say,” 09.07.2016).
To be autistic and aware of the world around you is to become desensitized to stories like this one, all too common accounts of parents murdering their autistic or disabled children. The murders of autistic children such as London McCabe, Daniel Corby, George Hodgins, Jude Mirra and Nicholas Richett, as well as the attempted murder of Issy Stapleton, have all received considerable news coverage, although most people are likely not familiar with those names. Regardless, cases like theirs have made one of the most awful acts imaginable, filicide, the murder of a child by their parent, seem commonplace.
However, reading the Washington Post’s account of Austin Anderson’s last days, I couldn’t help but be struck by the brutality of the crime. Kimberly Lightwine not only killed her son; she stood in a field, high on methamphetamines, for days, watching her son suffer, and she did nothing. She was found only a few feet away from her car, she didn’t have to remain there. Every day, she made the decision to not save him. Every day, she made the decision to stay and watch her son slowly die.
KSDK, a local television station in Missouri affiliated with NBC, recently reported that Lightwine’s sister, Stephanie Saloga, claims that Austin and his mother were abducted by three people who drugged Lightwine, broke her leg and left them in a field to die (KSDK, “‘There’s more to the story’: Family of blind, autistic son dead in MO field,” 09.08.2016).
I am open to the possibility that this latest account is true. But the validity of the charges levied against Ms. Lightwine, while certainly far from inconsequential, is not my focus today. Instead, I wish to examine the problematic nature of the initial reactions to the story from people who had no reason to believe it was anything other than true, people who defended the mother’s actions believing wholeheartedly that she did in fact murder her child. Through that, I will expose a pattern in which the media frequently demonizes disabled, and especially autistic, victims and empathizes with their aggressors.
Here is just one of the comments I’ve seen on Facebook in direct response to the original article, “I’m not taking up for this lady at all. Clearly what she has done was wrong…however, I cannot imagine the pressure and how hard it would be to take care of a severely disabled child 24/7. Its hard enough sometimes taking care of perfectly healthy children. How much support did she receive? How much of a break did she ever get? I’m just saying that these could’ve been factors. Even though her decision was wrong” (Facebook, 09.08.16). That comment, as of the last time I checked, received 400 likes.
Another wrote, “Children are a big job. A special needs child is a huge job. I don’t justify her poor choices. Her deadly choices. Im just baffled as to why all the judgment? Its so easy to judge and just as easy to support. It seems this mom wasn’t equipped to deal w this. Someone else had to know of the struggles. These things dont happen in a bubble Shame on everyone who failed this family. Rip lil guy” (Facebook, 09.07.16). I want to point out that the reason for all the judgment is because she’s accused of brutally murdering her blind, autistic child through her own neglect.
There’s a rhetorical relationship established throughout these comments: focusing empathy on the aggressor rather than the victim, subtle suggestions that having a disabled child makes your life a living hell, assertions that it’s somehow not okay to judge the actions of murderers, shifting the blame on the “system” that failed the family. Comments like these erase the child from the narrative and falsely assert that violence is the inevitable result of a bad situation. That bad situation can be summed up through the disabled child’s very existence.
Note also the subtle downplaying of the mother’s actions. How do the comments refer to the murder? The first comment refers to the murder as a “decision” which was “wrong.” The second comment refers to the murder as the aggressor’s “poor choices.” That choice of words, intentionally or not, reflects the authors’ understanding of what occurred. In general, words that euphemistic are not used to describe crimes where the sympathies lie with the victim. While many may assert that the authors had sympathy for both the aggressor and their victim, their choice of language reveals bias in favor of the mother.
This attitude, in which the media dehumanizes the victim and empathizes with the aggressor, is unfortunately common when the victim is a disabled child.
The San Jose Mercury News began its article on the murder of George Hodges, in which parents of autistic children told the paper that they “understood what would drive a parent of an autistic child to commit such a senseless act” by writing, “Taking care of autistic children is hard enough, but caring for them when they grow up can test a parent’s resolve like nothing else” (San Jose Mercury News, “Parents of Autistic Children Speak Out on Sunnyvale Murder-Suicide,” 03.08.2012).
The media coverage of George Hodges’ murder, which was sympathetic towards the aggressor, inspired four-year-old Daniel Corby’s mother to drown him in a bathtub. The Autistic Self Advocacy network wrote the following on the subject: “Let me present to you a sequence of events. If you wrote an article about George Hodgins’ murder, or if you gave a quote for one, or if you covered it on television, or if you blogged about, or if you commented on it, and if you said that no one should ‘judge’ the murder as wrong, if you said that Elizabeth Hodgins was ‘driven to murder’ by George’s autism or by ‘lack of services,’ if you called the murder ‘understandable,’ if you said ‘it wasn’t a murder, it was a mercy killing,’ if you said ‘all parents of special-needs children have felt this way,’ please take a minute to wonder if Patricia Corby heard you” (Autistic Self Advocacy Network, “Killing Words,” 04.10.2012) .
However, unlike the prior cases, the media took the position that Daniel did not deserve to die because he was not low-functioning. His aunt was reported as saying, “Daniel was probably looking down from heaven asking, ‘Mama, why did you kill me, when I was doing so well?’” (CBS News, “Woman sentenced in tub drowning of autistic son, 4,” 01.29.2013).
NBC New York, during their coverage of the murder of Jude Mirra by his mother, Gigi Jordan, wrote, “Gigi Jordan quit a high-powered job as a pharmaceutical company executive and abandoned her social life to devote all her time to her severely autistic son” and, “To those who knew her, she was a loving, overprotective single mother who snapped under incredible strain” and, “Her life became an obsession with her inability to help the child she loved. It literally drove her crazy” and, “Some people can’t stand a child who cries for an hour, can you imagine living with a child who’s been screaming for eight years?” (NBC New York, “Friend: NY Mom Who Allegedly Killed Son Obsessed Over His Autism,” 02.26.2010).
Note that, like the internet commentators on Facebook, the professional journalists focus their coverage on the aggressor, rather than the victim. Unlike the internet commentators on Facebook, the professional journalists’ language is even more explicitly sympathetic to the aggressor. Note that not one of the internet comments listed, nor any I have seen on that particular article, overtly stated that the murder was “understandable,” although perhaps that can be inferred, yet professional news publications used that exact word to describe the murder of George Hodges. Moreover, note that the comments listed never explicitly attacked the victim, but rather the “system” as a whole or the burden raising a disabled child places on families. While that clearly implies a level of victim-blaming, they never call out the specific victim for criticism, instead dehumanizing disabled and autistic people in a more general sense.
The professional journalists–who are paid by their respective publications to remain fair and unbiased–did both. The news articles listed dehumanized autistic and disabled people in a more general sense, as well as called out the specific victims as being “violent” or “low-functioning,” while coupled with descriptions of the aggressors as “loving” or “overprotective” as if their only crime was loving their child too much.
And that portrayal can have serious real-world ramifications. I previously mentioned how the Autistic Self Advocacy Network connected the media’s coverage surrounding the murder of George Hodges to the murder of Daniel Corby not long after.
However, the professional news media are not the only ones whose attitudes in this regard have caused such harm to the autistic community. Neurotypical activists supposedly working on behalf of autistic people have also made similar statements that have had significant real-world consequences for the very people they claim to fight for. Take Alison Singer, President of the Autism Science Foundation. In a documentary produced by Autism Speak titled “Autism Every Day,” Alison Singer described how she considered driving off the George Washington Bridge with her autistic daughter. The only reason she didn’t do so, according to the documentary, was because of her other, neurotypical daughter.
Four days following the film’s debut, Karen McCarron suffocated her autistic daughter, Katherine McCarron, to death with a plastic bag. Like the previously listed cases, this also received similarly vile news coverage.
In all fairness to Alison Singer, she later spoke out saying that since the film’s release, she had spoken with neurodiversity activists and “changed my behavior and rhetoric in response to some of the very good points people have made” (Autism Science Foundation Blog, “Speaking Out About ‘Autism Every Day,’” 09.09.2009). While I appreciate that Alison Singer has grown since that time, it neither changes nor excuses the sentiments expressed. Furthermore, the attitudes put forth by the organization that produced that documentary, Autism Speaks, create a very real and very harmful stigma regarding autistic people that contribute to a culture that routinely justifies their murders.
So what is the solution to this problem? The answer is deceptively simple: We, as a society, need to fundamentally alter the way we approach discussions regarding disability, mental illness and autism.
This means avoiding any approach that implies that autistic people are burdens or that their condition makes them fundamentally broken. When we compare autism to cancer or AIDs, or speak publicly about how much of a burden autistic people are, or make it sound like autism is the worst thing that can possibly happen to a child, we send a message that being autistic is a fate worse than death and therefore implying that their murders may be considered an act of mercy. There are many autistic people in the world, many of whom achieve great success in life. Being autistic is not a death sentence, nor should it be treated as one.
Additionally, our response towards the murder of autistic children needs to demonstrate respect for the life of the victim. This does not mean that we must remain uncritically vindictive when confronted with these cases. It would be irresponsible to blindly trust authorities whenever a person is accused of crime we as a society find especially heinous. However, it is unacceptable to engage in a conversation on murder that condones the crime or dehumanizes the victim.
Thirdly and finally, we need to refocus the state of activism away from parents and to the children. Too much activism in this field is focused on the difficulties associated with raising an autistic child while ignoring the issues that the autistic community cares about most. We need to do better. A society that preaches tolerance while simultaneously condoning systematic violence against a group of people can be called neither free nor truly tolerant. A person that preaches equality who defends the rights of ableists and murderers over the rights of the disabled can be called neither a maverick nor a progressive.
And if you have read this and you still believe that autism is a burden, that the blame for these murders lie not with the murders but with “society” or “the government”; if your first response to a parent murdering their autistic child is sympathy for the former instead of the latter; if you see such a story and immediately assume that there is something “wrong with the child” or that the parent just didn’t have enough support–then you are part of the problem.
Then there is blood on your hands.