I’ve seen a recent resurgence of my fellow autism parents being accused of justifying murder. They are accused of justifying murder because they bring up the issue of inadequate family support when faced with stories of parents murdering autistic children. The claim against them goes like this: “By bringing up the issue of support, you are justifying the murder of these autistic children, there is no excuse for murder and now is not the time to talk about support.” I can give you one of a very large number of examples of exactly this attack, this example is taken from an admin on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism public Facebook page, which is a very popular forum:
“But the time to talk about services is not now. It is any time BUT now. And if you can’t understand why connecting the two is justifying murder, then perhaps you should walk away and mull it over.”
Even though this reply was not directed at me (I didn’t comment on that or any other recent discussions there), I did “walk away and mull it over” and reached the following conclusion: Those claiming that bringing up the issue of inadequate support for autism is justifying murder, are (1) completely and utterly incorrect about the meaning of the word “justify,” and (2) are being hypocritical in the extreme as they use these murder incidents to push their own agenda.
First, the word “justify.” Providing an explanation for an action, is not the same as justifying the action. To justify something is to say you think it is right, proper, defendable, guiltless. I have never – not even once in all the forums and blogs I’ve read of this topic – heard a single parent of an autistic child say that murdering an autistic child is any of those things. In fact, they often explicitly say that no matter what motivated the murder – whether it was a mental health issue or whatever else – that the murder is always unacceptable.
Words matter – there is a huge and important difference between justifying something and explaining something. To explain something is to make it clearer, it doesn’t contain a judgment of the worth of the explanation – unlike the word “justify.” Anyone who treats an explanation as always being the same thing as a justification, is not only wrong, they are deliberately inflaming and upsetting the person who is trying to communicate with them. I have trouble reading the situation in any other way.
If you need an example that isn’t so upsetting, think of all the times you’ve heard people talk about the relevance of poverty, lack of education, and gangs when it comes to burglaries. Do we honestly think that bringing up these issues “justifies” the burglary? No, they go towards explaining the crime.
Bringing those issues up does not mean we don’t care about the victim of the crime. In fact they may be brought up with the intent of finding ways to avoid further future victims. In much the same way that bringing up factors like inadequate support services of autism families does not mean you don’t care about the child who has been murdered, but that people are trying to find a way to help avoid these stressors building up in other families.
It would be a different case if the stress of inadequate services was considered entirely irrelevant to these horrific murders, but then that claim should be made very expressly as a response: “The reason I don’t think you should bring up inadequate services for autism families, is because I consider that to be irrelevant to the murder.” That is not the same as what I’ve been seeing around, which is “don’t bring that up now, you’re justifying the murder.”
It’s important to understand too that it is perfectly possible and logical to show concern for both parties involved in a crime. We live in a society where we provide counselling and rehabilitation to criminals, as well as counselling and support to the victims. Do we think that people who do social work within prisons are evil, callous or don’t care about the victims, just because they try to understand and help the criminal? Surely not. Do we all accept that the safety and well-being of the victim takes precedence though? Surely yes, and we can see that understanding and rehabilitating the criminal is a way to further protect victims too. I don’t think it is rational or fair to condemn people for trying to help and understand a person who committed a criminal act, except where doing so would be putting that person in higher priority within society than the victim.
Again though, I have not seen any parents who think a murdering parent is more important than the child, I have seen plenty of people accuse them of this though simply because they tried to understand how anyone could do something so heinous as kill their own child. I would point out again too, that those who try to understand what factors lead to a murder, are trying to find ways to avoid it happening again.
What about the point that this is not the time to bring up issues of inadequate support services; that bringing up that issue now is insensitive and that people shouldn’t use a horrific murder to push their agendas? Despite seeing parents told not to bring up the service issue at this time, I have seen the exact same people using these murders to push their own agendas: They use these murders to highlight the attitudes the public has towards the disabled, where they are seen as treated as expendable, lesser human being, who are a burden, who would be better off dead. It strikes me as awfully two-faced to say “how dare you use this crisis to push your support-services agenda… when I’m busy using it to push my disability-attitudes agenda.” (In fact, the more cynical part of me wonders if this point isn’t behind the attacks on parents pushing the services-agenda; other people get annoyed when the spot-light gets taken off their own pet project.)
To make it very clear that pushing one agenda in this is no different than the other, consider the following two claims: “By talking about inadequate services for the person who murdered, you are justifying them murdering the disabled child.” How is that (essentially) any different from: “By talking about a murderer’s negative attitudes towards the disabled, you are justifying their murder of the disabled child.” Both statements are confusing explanation with justification, and the intentions of those talking about inadequate services is the same as the intention of those talking about attitudes towards the disabled: Both are trying to understand and find ways to prevent the murders happening again.
You may see one key difference though: You may think those talking about the attitudes towards the disabled are focusing on the victim, whereas those talking about inadequate services are focusing on the murderer, and thereby you may think those talking about services are putting the murderer’s interests and perspective above the victim’s. But this is not convincing at all. Poor attitudes towards the disabled and poor service provision negatively affects the entire family – including both the child and the mother. If you are part of a family in a society where people look down on the disabled as worthless, you will know that the mother also gets attacked and judged and considered faulty and worthless for the child she created, she will typically try to shield her child from these views and fight them tooth-and-nail – both her and the child are impacted. Of course when services are inadequate, not only is a mother left unsupported, so is her child. When people talk about inadequate services, this is relevant to both victim and perpetrator, it’s not solely about the person who did the murdering, and I consider it deliberately distorting to say it is otherwise. The mother-child unit is a close one; to care for one is to benefit the other, it goes both ways.
In summary: (1) It is incorrect and hurtful to claim that people are trying to justify the murder of autistics by bringing up the relevance of inadequate support-services; (2) it is perfectly logical and possible to try to understand and care about both a criminal and a victim; and (3) it is highly hypocritical to claim that others aren’t allowed to use an event like someone’s murder to push an agenda of inadequate services, whilst you push your own agenda (e.g. about attitudes towards the disabled).
My own views – if you care to hear them – are that it is very hard to figure out what motivates a murder without the intense investigation typical of a court-case, and I think it over-simplifies them in a way that does a disservice to both the victim and the perpetrator if we try to turn such events into a public service announcement – whether that announcement is about attitudes towards the disabled or about inadequate services. I have written before on complexities involved in figuring out motivations, looking at what historically motivates the killing of children. I have also written before on the frustration of all autism parents being treated like potential murderers. In neither of those posts did I hop on anyone’s band wagon, or try to turn a real disaster into a platform for some other cause. And I hope that anyone reading this post would not see me doing that either.
All I am doing is responding to the very poor, distorting, and hypocritical arguments I see on almost a daily basis now, attacking parents of autistic children who are desperately trying to understand how another parent could ever have taken a child’s life. Attacking each other like that lumps accusations and hurt on people who deserve neither, and just perpetuates the current climate in the autism community of parents against self-advocates – a division which is un-necessary, unhealthy, and counter-productive to the ultimate aims of both groups.