The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘crime’ Category

Autism dashes another victim’s optimism

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Ben Barnhard, courtesy Associated Press

I always stress that autism itself cannot kill its inhabitants directly, but the stress and frustration that builds with raising children on the spectrum can lead caregivers to murder, as was the case with Margaret Jensvold, who killed her 13-year-old autistic son and then herself in a story published by Eric Tucker of the Associated Press and syndicated to Huffington Post. A dark irony in this instance was Jensvold’s occupation of a psychiatrist.

Police found a note along with their bodies earlier this month, with Jensvold saying she couldn’t deal with the Maryland school system and that debt was strangling her. Family members said Jensvold was increasingly strained by financial pressure and fights with the Montgomery County public school system as they refused to cover tuition costs for Ben Barnhard to attend a private school for special-needs students. Jensvold didn’t want to return her son to a public school district where family members said she felt harshly judged and marginalized while Ben had struggled.

The note added that Jensvold killed her son so he wouldn’t experience of the trauma of losing her mother, with Jensvold’s sister noting she wouldn’t believe Barnhard would mentally recover from such an event. Barnhard spent nine months at a weight-loss boarding school after he topped the scales at 275 pounds, and he dropped more than 100 pounds when he finished his time there, gaining new-found optimism about school and being a kid again. The day after Jensvold killed herself and Barnhard, a check came in the mail from her sister’s mother for $10,000 toward tuition at the private school she was hoping to enroll Barnhard in.

This is the third article I have dissected on my blog where an autistic child was killed by his or her parents, and recurring themes are all too similar: parents are unable to handle the challenges of raising children whose development doesn’t align with neurotypical kids, with their emotional stress exacerbated by the feeling of isolation from the community. Unfortunately, this leads parents whose conflict management skills are vulnerable to taking the life of the children they gave birth to. Imagine how Jensvold’s circumstances could have changed had she not become mentally unstable and held out for at least an extra day, where she would have learned that support was coming for her son.

Covering a story like this is not much easier than it was for the sources to speak about what happened (Jensvold’s sister and Barnhard’s father were interviewed). Since Tucker is an Associated Press employee, his story follows a specific format that’s about as hard-core as you can get with journalism. Opinions from authors of AP articles are non-existent, and since AP stories are often distributed throughout news outlets across the country, their writers will craft the story for a national audience as they cannot predict where and when their stories will appear online or in print.

Even with the guidelines, there still is room for some creative flow in AP stories, as Tucker leads with Ben’s achievement at the weight-loss boarding school he attended after enduring years of taunting from classmates. Similar to the mission plan of the Syfy series Alphas, Tucker sought to communicate qualities to the audience that highlight how Ben’s previous weight problems and autism spectrum disorder had little effect on his interests or capacity for autism. Midway through the story, he does the same for his mother. While it won’t change the fact that Ben’s mother ultimately killed him, Tucker does his part to humanize the story’s subjects to increase audience accessibility.

Instances of parents killing autistic children are rare, but the emotional weight of murder often means such deaths will likely find their way to online media. Autistic children shouldn’t live in fear of being killed by their parents, but Tucker explains through his reporting why murder/suicide is a poor solution. Tucker and the Associated Press won’t make a call to action themselves, but perhaps readers who know of parents traveling through an environment similar to Jensvold’s will pick up the cue.

Caution ahead

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Photo by John Luke, Northwest Indiana Times

Lindsay Machak of the Northwest Indiana Times covered an incident whose psychological implications weren’t fully explored, but bound to stir up thoughts to readers. Julia Cox, who successfully campaigned to have a sign placed in her neighborhood alerting motorists of her autistic son who sporadically elopes, believes a vandal targeted her family because of her son. Underneath the sign (seen with Julia in the photo), someone painted the words “Retard F U.” Cox later painted over the words to avoid other children from seeing the language, and a graffiti team later returned the sign to its normal state.

However, local police aren’t so sure the vandalism was indeed a hate crime, with Lansing police saying the crime didn’t go far enough to be investigated as such, even though they note the distastefulness of the vandal’s word selection. Police are also reluctant to conduct a full investigation because there is no known offender and little information about who is possibly responsible. Cox is simply hoping the sign won’t be vandalized in this manner again.

From a criminal perspective, graffiti is commonplace but detection is not consistent. Usually, only paint is needed to make a graffiti hit on property. In neighborhoods such as Cox’s, vandals can avoid losing their cover by performing graffiti at a time when most of its residents are sleeping, as even a few public places aren’t equipped with surveillance systems to discourage such behavior. In terms of enforcement, police may allocate resources to combating more serious crimes that can more severely compromise the public’s safety, unless such graffiti instigates violent behavior. However, they are not completely immune to being reported should a passerby and/or night owl take notice, and those who are caught won’t escape without penalty.

Cox’s claim that the sign’s vandalism was the result of a hate crime is also not easy to process. Hate crimes themselves carry a legal definition, used to describe bias-motivated violence on the basis of personal characteristics. Traits include race, religion, appearance, nationality, language and disability. Incidents include offensive graffiti and/or damage to property on the basis of personal characteristics, which would contradict quotes given by the Lansing police officer in the story if simple definitions were applied. Based on what the Lansing police officer said, it’s possible he or his department have processed more grotesque hate crimes within his jurisdiction that went beyond graffiti on public property, or he could have been speaking generically.

Furthermore, without any clues to the culprit, investigating the incident as a hate crime is difficult to justify. Theoretically, Cox herself could have vandalized the sign to attract attention to herself, although committing such an act would be illogical considering the amount of time lobbying and receiving a sign to alert people about her son. If the perpetrator was indeed found, as was the case in a January incident in the Twin Cities reported by several news outlets (I linked WCCO’s version), finding ground to consider the incident a hate crime would be less difficult.

This also brings up the emotional investment of mothers regarding their children born with a “disadvantage.” Paternal instincts influence their thought process,  which can lead them to decisions or beliefs they wouldn’t otherwise possess. There’s no way to determine if Cox would still believe such an act would be a hate crime if autism didn’t affect her personally. This is not to say having children leads parents to making illogical, impulsive decisions, but their feelings may simply reflect a retaliatory mood should they believe their children are under attack. Thoughts of vengeance are nothing new, if recent media coverage of Casey Anthony’s trial provide sociological indications.

The story itself does more than simple police blotter because its nature doesn’t carry the repetition of “typical” crimes. Making specific signs warning of handicapped people has been somewhat controversial, as concerns, such as what Machak reports, creep into the public psyche. Other worries reflect potential consequences of publicly “transmitting” that at least one person in the neighborhood suffers a mental disability. Machak deduces that leading the story with the events that led to the sign would clarify why its vandalism was troublesome, as most readers would ponder over a “Caution: Handicapped Person” versus “Stop” or “Yield.”

Future story paths will be dependent on what happens to the sign. If graffiti continues, stories on public safety for the disabled may appear, which may lead to a closer mainstream examination of addressing the public about people who suffer from autism and other disorders. It could also re-open a dialogue on the struggle for acceptance in the face of other characteristics.

Examining lives lost to autism

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While stories of deaths involving the autism spectrum are rarely reported outside of local affiliates, there’s no secret to the potentially stressful challenge that lies for caregivers of autistic people, particularly those on the “low-functioning” end of the spectrum, where symptoms and abnormalities are more severe, robbing the ability to function effectively from its inhabitants.

Now, thanks to a story in the Colorado Springs Gazette, online readers can access a blog that documents deaths and the autism spectrum. Some are autistic people killing others, some fit a classic issue of children wandering off and succumbing to the elements, unaware of their dangers. However, several are murders or murder-suicides, and most parents (only mothers were used in the story, another conventional tactic I’ve noted when family members are interviewed for autism coverage) can relate to the intensity of raising an autistic child, although none of them condone the actions of parents who killed their autistic children.

A few elements in this story appeared in my coverage of Saiqa Akhter murdering her two autistic children and in general research: parents, mothers in particular, developing depression and social isolation because resources are lacking and internalizing fears about being judged or ostracized by other parents who believe autistic children are simply brats. Collectively, all the sources in the story suggest more resources need to be available for overwhelmed parents, while parents in despair should find an initiative to get help.

I can cite evidence from my documentaries on the subject that not everyone will take a villainous attitude toward parents of autistic kids. In one episode, I profiled a St. Paul couple who are members of the Autism Society of Minnesota and a Stillwater family whose mother bands together with other moms of autistic kids, dubbing the group “The A-Team.” While there’s no linear progression of development for autistic people, getting help definitely prevents social or mental side-effects that lead to drastic measures.

The only mystery about preventing autistic children from dying at the hands of their parents is why this issue isn’t getting much national coverage. Suggesting election cycles is accurate, but short-sighted since other news is covered leading up to major election year. Another possibility is the low percentage of autistic people in relation to the country’s population. While the population rises, a lack of understanding about the condition remains. In fact, disabilities lag behind illnesses in terms of comprehension, which is why you’ll see a lot of mainstream support for events that fight diseases more often than disabilities. That doesn’t mean disabilities are ignored, they simply don’t draw as much interest because the material isn’t as relateable.

While I ponder what the tipping point will be to highlight the issue of parents murdering autistic kids, this is one case where “blame the media” would be an unwise decision. Social awareness is key; symptoms of depression and isolation may show up for others to spot. Likewise, people who find out they’ll have to adapt with an autistic person can easily find resources through quick Internet searches. News coverage can highlight problems we may not be aware of otherwise, but proper journalists don’t take a direct role in influencing stories. The audience plays that role with their reaction to coverage.

Written by TheSportsBrain

October 9, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Autism and felonies meet up in the panhandle

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After The Autistic Journalist recorded its biggest month in web traffic since the site was launched (over 900. Not a ton, but 300 above the previous mark set in April this year), activity keeps rolling for the month of October. A family is upset at felony charges filed against of their 11-year-old autistic boy in the Florida panhandle, claiming the school he attends used him as an example to avoid cuts for school resource deputies.

The boy, Terrauce Jones, allegedly struck an assistant principal with a binder after becoming upset about allegations of hitting another student. He then went to the prinicpal’s office, attempting to kick her after she tried to calm him down, then threw a soda bottle at her direction a short time later. The family questioned the decision-making, wondering why there was no attempt to restrain Jones by putting him in a room until the family showed up, while the school district contends every effort was exhausted before calling in law enforcement.

Jones’ autism has been controlled through medication and supervision since he was diagnosed at age 2. His family approached the school about home schooling Jones because of difficulties transitioning to middle school, being around more students, and bullying. School officials said he was too smart and accommodations would be made, and his medications were adjusted. Jones’ family said he suffered an outburst this week because he was low on medication.

There are some parallels here to the story I discussed about a North Carolina restaurant, where two sides speak on an issue. What’s different is the school district providing their side of the story while the other side believes the decisions made in the incident could have been chosen more deftly. This story marks the second time a news outlet has reported felony charges against autistic children since I launched the site, and both times, the charges were a result of mental outbursts that quickly turned physical. Such emotional reactions are no surprise in the autism community, but the inability to predict an autistic person’s mental volatility will create a possibility of an outburst. I’m not sure how charging autistic kids with felonies will help, although school districts cannot give autistic students a free pass either. It’s worth noting that the deputy who arrested Jones didn’t know about his autism until after the fact, and he said he would have supervised him until his family arrived had he known in advance.

The catalyst lies with mainstreaming autistic children in educational environments. The strategy is not a poor one, especially if an autistic child has no learning difficulties or superior skills in some cases (thank you Wheel of Fortune :-P). However, side effects follow, including the problems I listed above. Other children generally aren’t aware of autism and its symptoms, and the lack of understanding can contribute to social problems on both sides.

Regarding coverage, there are several ways to handle a crime story. When a mental disability is factored in, the focus generally shifts to a story about a potential lack of understanding without addressing the larger issue of an increasing population of autistic people and those with other mental disabilities. There’s little coverage on the estimated growth of autistic people in the years to come, while news outlets frequently cover the future’s potential problems with a growing overall population. However, felonies charged against autistic children are not established patterns and will stand out in the news because of their rarity. Journalists may want to explore the facet of autistic students in mainstream classrooms and examine how classmates can better understand why others are different and cannot control those factors. Not all children are bullies, and even knowledge may not change behaviors of those looking to make trouble, but there are ways to explain all disabilities to children in ways they can grasp, even if they do not fully understand.

Written by TheSportsBrain

October 1, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Autism shows its deadly side once more

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Kenneth Holmes and Micaela Jackson

I was hoping Saiqa Akhter’s murders of her two autistic children would be the last time we heard of such a thing in the autism community, but I came across an article from the New York Daily News via Autisable’s Twitter page (this blog is syndicated by Autisable, a community site for autism bloggers) that reported an update in the investigation of a murder-suicide where Micaela Jackson killed her 12-year-old autistic son and then herself with a 9-mm pistol. Jackson left a suicide note on the door and her last blog entry stated that her life was now in God’s hands.

While signs of potential harm against oneself or others usually appear before such an act occurs, sources interviewed in the article said they had no idea Jackson was about to snap, as she had recently earned a promotion at her job. The only theory investigators had to offer was Jackson potentially being strained by caring for her only child.

Unfortunately, answers will likely never be discovered. I explained in the Akhter murder post how autism can wreak havoc for parents if not approached carefully and optimistically. In theory, Jackson may not have done either. Combine that with being located in the Bronx borough of New York City, where the cost of living is high throughout the city and space is limited (although I have to believe there’s a nearby resource for people affected by autism), and perhaps Jackson experienced the perfect storm of emotions to carry out her act. However, I can only speculate.

This story is fascinating because people interviewed for the article did not notice any premonitions of the murder-suicide occurring. Jackson either made a choice without warning, or was possibly aware of the general red flags of suicide and did what she could to avoid detection.

The unique nature of the incident likely led to its publishing in one of New York’s news outlets. The photo that was found on Jackson’s blog and republished by the Daily News represents an element of autism I haven’t seen in any previous article I’ve blogged about on this site and only once on video (from Twin Cities station WCCO): that the disability can affect anyone from any ethnic background. I was fortunate enough to profile an autistic child of an interracial couple when I was producing documentaries on the subject, although I chose to report on his condition more than his or his parents’ ethnic background. In most mainstream articles and videos, the faces of autism movements and up-close examinations of the condition often have white people in the forefront. While there are plenty of cases in that group, whites as a whole are slowly becoming a minority in the United States, which means there’s a lot of non-white people around. It’s only natural that autism would affect those folks as well, but I rarely see reporters making an effort to point that out.

Would showing autism as everyone’s problem versus just a white person’s problem saved Jackson and her son? Impossible to verify because the question itself has too many variables. However, highlighting autism’s lack of racial discrimination could help everyone come to terms with the condition and not feel ashamed or scared about it. Committing suicide and taking your son with you certainly won’t achieve progress. When journalists are at their best, they can wield immense power in influence and information. Perhaps it’s time for journalists to re-evaluate the resources available and/or investigate the culture of autism outside the Caucasian realm. Anything to prevent another senseless end to an autistic person’s life.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 1, 2010 at 12:18 am

When autism can be deadly

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Courtesy Irving Police/AP

It’s been a while, I know. Duties at SPNN and Community Hoops, where I cover the Minnesota Lynx, along with a lull in autism article publications, have kept me from making any new posts lately.

I mentioned in a blog regarding vaccines that autism can’t kill like the diseases vaccines are designed to prevent. I haven’t been proven wrong, but a Texas mother of two autistic kids strangled both of them to death, according to charges filed by the Irving Police Department. One charge has been filed, the other is still pending, but a 911 recording was released where Saiqa Akhter, a Pakistani native, tells the operator she killed her two children because they were autistic. If convicted (which is really a sure thing given the evidence presented at this point), Akhter could have the same fate of her kids since Texas allows the death penalty.

Reading this story brought back memories of watching a series of stories on YouTube where a couple in a small Ohio town killed their adopted autistic son and made up a story that he was missing. Akhter didn’t go that far, not that it relieves her of any wrongdoing. Ideally, a news outlet or two could pick up this story to highlight the frustrations of raising autistic children, then present a number of options to safely deal with those obstacles. I’ve absorbed a few stories where parents give up hope for their autistic child to pursue dreams their peers will have no trouble with, but killings are very rare.

This story is sure to get some office chatter going, but it won’t likely be substantial. What happens to Akhter is irrelevant, although I’m sure an update will be published on the national feeds. Very often, when parents cut their children’s lives short, mental issues are present. Signs will often present themselves, and those with keen eyes can potentially intervene before a scenario like Ahkter’s develops. This story highlights the dark side of autism. No one expects it, and no one can expect how parents will respond to the situation, but murdering children when they’ve done no wrong is bound to get you on the news without any brownie points.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 21, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Fifth grade autistic boy charged with felony

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Photo by Carole Reynolds, used in examiner.com

A colleague of mine alerted me to this article that was published last week in examiner.com. It’s an editorial from Robin Hansen for the online magazine’s special education section. She does a fair amount of reporting though, which focuses on a rare felony charge against an Arkansas boy who isn’t even a teenager yet.

Zakhquery Price was charged by two school staff members who were injured while attempting to restrain him following an incident last October. His grandmother argues that the incident was caused by his school failing to accommodate suggestions in his Individual Education Plan (IEP, used to help students who are mentally and/or physically disabled progress in the school system. His hearing is scheduled for January 12th, and a psychologist hired by the school recommends having Zak in a mental hospital.

You can tell the writer doesn’t have a journalistic background as the article is sprinkled with spelling and other grammatical errors. However, writing as more of a columnist, she clearly takes the family’s side, arguing that Zak hasn’t been educated or treated properly (according to the article, his IQ is 68). We also only hear one side of the story from Zak’s grandmother. I’ve alluded to he-said/she-said stories before; it’s almost impossible to know if we’re being told the truth from human sources alone as relatives or friends sometimes defend their own, even if indisputable evidence links the accused person to a crime. However, if Zak’s grandmother is telling the truth about what happened to her grandson and the school he was enrolled in, this would be the latest example of neurotypicals acting oblivious to their environment. From an anecdotal perspective, people on the outside kept autism hidden from view even at the turn of last decade (I’m starting to date myself now). These types of stories often attract more attention in the news than school employees working to improve the lives of kids who would otherwise be cast off as useless. Filing criminal charges against a kid who possibly had no knowledge on appropriately expressing emotional frustration is an indicator that employees at the school would rather not deal with him instead of assisting him, but this is pure speculation. Since his grandmother appears to be the primary caregiver for Zak, one element that many readers are likely wondering is why his parents aren’t quoted. No one can truly say why, but it would be disturbing to find out his parents have abandoned him.

As the GLBT community continues to discover that ignorance and intolerance still exist in their fight for equal rights, this article shows that autism isn’t immune to the ills of social justice either.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 4, 2010 at 1:03 pm