The Murder of Children with Disabilities

I have a new piece up on CNN about media discourse and the murder of children with disabilities.

London McCabe was a 6-year-old boy. On November 3, he died when his mother threw him off the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Oregon, according to police.

London had autism. Media coverage of his death has widely focused on the stresses and challenges of raising a child with autism. In other words, the stories are about his mother and her problems finding help, not the dead boy.

This is a mistake. In all cases of violent crime, but especially those involving people with disabilities and their caregivers, we need to mourn the victims, rather than explain away their deaths. Unfortunately, whenever these terrible kinds of tragedies take place, which they do far too often, we do just the opposite.

Stories about lack of support services position children with disabilities as burdens to their families. They portray the crime as understandable. Such stories perpetuate the idea that it’s better to be dead than to be disabled, that life with disability is life without meaning, and that tired, stressed, caregivers have no hope. No wonder, in such a narrative, the parents do such terrible things. The children, or at least their disabilities, become responsible for their death.

 A few additional thoughts.

1. I wrote this piece thinking a lot about assisted suicide and the ways in which we do and do not value the lives of the disabled. I see a much broader pattern of discourse that plays out in these murder cases in particularly clear ways. But it’s a bigger problem.

2. Here’s the other point from the essay:

[There’s a] huge industry dedicated to the eradication of autism through quack treatments and the belief that environmental factors such as vaccines cause the condition (Note: They don’t). Such false arguments perpetuate the idea that autism can be beaten through treatment; when treatment fails, some parents turn violent.

Indeed, in the months before killing Alex Spourdalakis, his mother, Dorothy Spourdalakis, had turned to anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists such as the group Autism One and Andrew Wakefield, the former doctor and notorious fraud. Wakefield criticized the medical profession for its treatment of Alex and advocated for access to “cures,” a campaign that continues today.

And it’s not just these fringe groups and snake-oil salesmen perpetuating this ideology. Autism Speaks, the biggest autism awareness charity, fundraises through military language mixed with demands for pity. For Autism Speaks, a group that has been criticized for having no people with autism on its board, autism is the enemy that must be eradicated.

I’ve written about Autism Speaks here.

Thanks for reading and sharing.

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