The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘murder

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.

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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