Friday, December 9, 2011

Mother, Afraid of Costs of Autism, Kills Child

Paula C. Durbin-Westby

I am writing here about one aspect of this horrible killing of a six-month-old baby, that of the mother's fears about the costs of having an Autistic child:

Whether or not the parent was not legally sane at the time of the killing is not what interests me. She was coherent enough at one point to express her fear that the child would cost her too much, both emotionally and financially.

"Rochester told detectives that she thought having an autistic child would emotionally and financially “ruin” her life."

Let's take a look at some of the things she might have read before she made a decision to kill a six month old baby. While there may have been other reasons for the infanticide, including her state of mental health, the following examples could greatly add to her worries.

First, let's look at common "information" about autism that includes comparisons with deadly diseases (which autism is not), extremely inflated financial "information" that is not even close to the realm of reality (debunked by Joseph at Natural Variation, see below), and generally negative and alarmist views of autism. Autistic disability rights activists and our supporters have been decrying the use of these sorts of "devastating disorder" statistics and this sort of information for years.

I am not implying that any of the organizations or agencies I will list are in any way responsible for this particular crime, of course. I do suggest that these groups, which have the power to influence how people think about autism and other disabilities, take your role seriously and think about the message you are putting out and possible unintended consequences.

Autism Speaks has this to say (in fact, if I recall correctly, AS is the organization that came up with this "fact"):

"More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes or pediatric AIDS combined."

The Arc's first page on "I want to learn about Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder" states, in its second paragraph, that it is estimated that one in 110 children is diagnosed with autism,
"...making autism more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined."

The fact that these three childhood diseases, which are dangerous and scary, but relatively rare have to be lumped together and autism is still "more common" than them is an exercise in fearmongering.

The Autism Society "estimates that the lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism ranges from $3.5 million to $5 million.."

The Autism Society got its figures from this Harvard School of Public Health report. The Harvard press release has the title of "Autism Has High Costs to U.S. Society":

Armed with all this "knowledge," one could easily be desperately afraid, whether or not one has any mental health condition. If mentally unhealthy, as this article suggests, these statistics running around in her head could have put her over the edge into doing something unthinkable.

Most parents won't kill their Autistic kids (thanks, Mom!). These kinds of statistics, however, many of them not much more than speculative, do fuel people's fears about autism.

For a good article debunking the "costs" of autism and the "Autism has High Costs to U.S. Society" idea:

It would be questionable on my part to assert that the abovementioned organizations have any direct responsibility for the actions of a single individual, however the almost ubiquitous repetition of fear- and anxiety-inducing statistics on the websites and other communications of large organizations amount to a kind of pernicious influence on both parents of Autistic children and the general public, and sometimes, unfortunately, on Autistics ourselves.

NOTE: I have made two changes since I first wrote this article two days ago. First, I removed one sentence. Some readers of my first version of this article pointed out that my sentence "Most parents won't kill their Autistic kids" does not take into consideration that prenatal testing could be used for selective abortion. I have decided that the prenatal testing issue, which is of importance, and the topic of this particular crime, should not be conflated so have removed that reference in the body of this post.

The second change I have made is to replace the word "murder," which has certain legal meanings, with the words "killing," and "homicide." I share the sense of moral outrage that many people have expressed about the smothering of a baby, and have made the change with some reservation, but it is not always correct to refer to a killing by a person who is legally insane as murder, so I will refrain from doing so in this article.


This essay was previously published at