12 March, 2012

Tragedy, Sympathy and Empathy

My heart is racing, and it makes me unable to breathe. Tears swell up when I try to talk about it. It is a tragic story that has our entire community reeling.

A student from my son's school was killed by his mother. Then she took her own life.

The articles keep indicating that she was overtired, had too much responsibility, and a lack of services keeps coming up. As one writer put it, she was "her child's nurse, his advocate, his playmate, his cook, his personal hygiene assistant, and his communicator. [She] was the mother of an autistic adult child. And she was her son's entire world, meeting his every need from the moment he was born. And she was desperately fearful for his future and exhausted beyond belief."

but she murdered her child, and that's the story. 

If we let this story focus on the hardships of this woman, we are lost. The young man was killed, and it undermines that significance when we read in another article that one could understand what "would drive a parent of an autistic child to commit such a senseless act." Anyone who says they "understand" is reinforcing the idea that my son, and other people like him, are less valuable. It may be unintentional, but that sympathy starts to sound a lot like taking his life is somehow "understandable," because things were hard and the young man required a lot of help. It reduces a person into a list of burdens.

Yes, we need better services, but we have always needed better services. Yes, we need support for parents who are life-long caretakers, and better adult programs for that magic age when children become adults overnight. We need infrastructure and life-skills support for adults with autism. There was a program available for this family, but there really are not a lot of options when kids "age-out" of the education system. But these are all separate issues. These are the things we are working for. That's what we advocate for. And as for worry, there is not a single parent I know in this community that is not concerned about their child's future. Exhaustion, frustration, fear...

It is not a list of reasons why taking your child's life is justified.

A pile of pity on this mother is not going to bring about more services. Are you outraged? Then vote people into office that believe the special needs community has a fundamental right to supports. That might get more services. Talk to your neighbors about shared responsibility and humanity and dispel the myth that we are leeches trying to live off the system. Those things might help get services for people like my son and the young man who was killed.

And I do not believe absolution will encourage people to support me, or my son, or adults with autism. In fact it further ostracizes us; it makes us "other." As a mother of a child with autism I walk under a cloud of suspicion now. Will I snap?  I'll have more people looking and feeling sorry for me as if I have an anchor around my neck--and how will that make my son feel? Most people would never stop to think that showing so much sympathy, not for the victim, but for the person who killed him, might make adults with autism, who may rely on a network of caregivers, feel threatened, and more vulnerable, like there is no one they can trust.

When it is even intimated that this killing was done out of mercy, it changes the value of my son's life. It says that his life is less worth living, but let me be clear there is no sliding scale on my son.

Maybe it's empathy that's needed. Empathy takes more time than sympathy, but if you are able to imagine life as my son then it would be impossible to disregard him. Looking at life through his eyes would give you a sense of what his needs are, and of course what services must be provided, but more importantly you would be able to see the relationships he has. You would see the snarky jokes he's in on and how much he loves his family. You would see that he has intent and tries constantly to communicate what he is thinking. You would see him as a person, instead of "person who needs to be taken care of." Maybe it would change things, but most of the time people just use the narrow scope of their own expectations and desires to determine the value of someone elses's life; most people are unable to separate their opinion from the other person's reality.

And yes, Jack's life is challenging a lot of the time. But no one gets to say that he is less valuable because his life is hard, or because his life is not what someone else expected. He needs help with almost every aspect of his life, and will continue to need a lot of help, but he doesn't need pity, or mercy and if you think he does, why don't you ask him? I'm sure he'd rather have you talk with him than about him.

There are no excuses.

and we have so much more work to do.

for more perspectives, please see these posts:
a version of this post was the editor's pick today at OpenSalon.com

The opinions on this blog are my own, and in no way represent the many groups, foundations and communities with whom my name may be associated. 

This may be reposted with proper attribution and links back to this original post. I reserve the right to rescind the reposting of my material. 
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The opinions on this blog are my own, and in no way represent the many groups, foundations and communities with whom my name may be associated.