The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘death’ 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 seriesĀ 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.

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

Parents respond to murderous mother

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Courtesy Irving Police/AP

On the blogosphere and TV, parents are offering insight as to why Saiqa Akhter snapped and killed her two autistic children because she wanted “normal kids,” according to a 911 call where she confessed to the murders. However, none of them are excusing her actions.

The consensus was Akhter went that far because she didn’t have a support network to help raise her kids with a disability that sometimes leaves autistic people stuck with the behaviors of a toddler. The trials of raising autistic people are no secret if you’ve even remotely followed coverage. Raising children period is a challenge with all the variables out there. Akhter’s family said she suffered from depression and other mental illnesses. Whether that can be verified or not is unclear, and we won’t know if a support network would have prevented Akhter from killing her kids either. What we do learn based on the aggregate of responses is parenting can be a frustrating and lonely experience when autism is added to the equation because a lack of understanding still remains in mainstream society.

The power of social media is clear, as it has been for several years. While user-generated content is criticized for accelerating political fragmentation and filling the Internet with nothing but clutter, it’s also useful for giving anyone surfing the web insight to things that would otherwise be unobtainable. While I recommend caution about user-generated content because such information could be tainted by personal opinions or lack of evidence, they can include resources to assist others.

Whatever the blogosphere holds, it’s clear many are breaking down the Akhter case, which could be a useful learning tool for people inside the autism community and reporters looking for insights to cover.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 3, 2010 at 10:25 am

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

A few thoughts on MJ’s memorial

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Never did I expect a blog on Michael Jackson would attract any kind of attention to the site. I guess I should have expected the opposite given his nickname: “The King of Pop.”

I missed the live broadcast of the memorial because of errands, but since we’re talking about a “king,” I figured coverage would appear on YouTube and other online sites shortly after the ceremony. A collection of highlights were sorted here.

As far as big-time memorials go, this didn’t deviate from the norm. The only sense of negativity publicly stated about the memorial came from Bill O’Reilly today, but his show (along with pundits on FOX News and other networks) is basically nothing more than a paid blogger stating opinions and facts to fit those views. Screwed up as Michael may have been (his father probably won’t win any best dad awards either), you’d never have guessed it inside the Staples Center. Al Sharpton addressed those issues, but didn’t get into them too much. The theme of the memorial reflected ideas I expressed in my last blog, that so many careers for fellow African-Americans were launched or inspired by the success of Michael and the support he got when he started his solo career. For those who choose to focus on Jackson’s mishaps, he had to do something right for his daughter, Paris, to tearfully say goodbye at the end of the memorial. No one’s perfect, but I don’t think there’s a better compliment than that.

Ultimately, they could have hosted the memorial at Lucas Oil Stadium, Ford Field, or any other enclosed stadium larger than the Staples Center and there still wouldn’t have been enough tickets for fans. Not even the Bird’s Nest in China.

Emotions were intense, but after watching the highlights, I’d want my memorial to be a celebration. I don’t expect any keg parties, but I’ve worked on many SPNN broadcasts and covered many stories for class that were so dry, I could sleep the whole time and not miss a thing. I don’t want to add myself to that category. I want to have laughs, tears, and stories that may give someone something to pass on and make the world more intelligent. In this case, Jackson’s memorial suggests that despite his punch line attraction later on, he was as human as any one of us. For his family and his large fan base, their love for him transcended his gaffes.

Yes, even autistic people are capable of expressing analysis and emotional response to the things around us.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 8, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Michael Jackson…”You Are Not Alone.”

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MJ_CVR_RWe may have only shared the same first name, but I was fortunate enough to play catch-up with a musician who my parents were fond of. The closest I got to the phenomenon was after its peak; VH1 would air his movie Moonwalker regularly. It was unfortunate to see Michael Jackson unable to handle the pressures of fame and self-destruct, but before the freefall, he was a revolutionary, a man who opened many doors for musicians to come.

Need proof? Sales of Jackson’s hits skyrocketed after news of his death broke. His songs are currently dominating the iTunes top 100, a plateau he never cracked while he was still around (then again, iTunes wasn’t around in his prime). Radio stations and music TV stations have honored Jackson throughout the day. My peers on Facebook have found many ways to honor his accomplishments in the music industry. No one was unaware of his scandals, but The Beatles and Elvis Presley weren’t perfect either, and they continue to permeate through future generations. Going off the old adage, you don’t speak ill of the dead.

From a journalist’s point of view, I’ll be curious to see how coverage plays out in the coming days. His death came shortly after Ed McMahon, the iconic sidekick of Johnny Carson, and Farrah Fawcett, whose bathing suit poster and career on Charlie’s Angels made her a huge sensation in the ’70s. Not much has been said of those two, which may lead you to argue that they were left behind. On the surface, that would be the case. However, the way a reporter would see this, McMahon and Fawcett were publicized before with their age and/or health problems. Jackson’s death was a complete surprise; no one saw it coming.

I’ve read a few tribute articles on Jackson, including his impact on his hometown of Gary, Indiana and celebrities who tweeted and/or spoke with reporters about him. If you’re curious, he was the first African-American to be featured on MTV after a few strings were pulled to get videos from his Thriller album featured. MTV, hesitant to feature black musicians out of concern that they wouldn’t fit with a white demographic, took off as a result. While MTV has morphed since then, the station may not have existed the way it does now had it not been for him. Just think, there could have been no The Real World, no Laguna Beach, no episode of The Hills. You might want to give him your thanks.

As I mentioned earlier, other musicians were quick to recognize the things he did, and a few consider Jackson an inspiration for their own careers in music. No one cared about his ethnic background, fans showed their support because he did things that no other musician did at the time. Who knows how the music industry would be different had Michael not been a part of it.

While I would certainly tell my kids or other people to avoid the mistakes he made as they proved costly to his career, I’d also tell them that just like Michael, they have the capability to be trendsetters, to achieve what was once impossible. Some believe I’m doing the same for the autism community. While I certainly haven’t experienced A-list status and my fan base is quite short, perhaps Michael and I do have some parallels despite our perpendicular paths.

Judging by the response, it’s safe to say Jackson is not alone in death, and we’ll rock with him until our time comes.

Written by TheSportsBrain

June 26, 2009 at 6:15 pm