Playing the Blame Game: People Don't Kill Their Children Because of Autism

ResearchBlogging.orgGiven the reports of another murder of an autistic child, and the angry place's unbelievable need to suggest, both through an article and a tweet, that it is the lack of support causing parents to kill their children, I'm revamping my filicide post from last month and adding additional information. The reality is that filicide is far more common than people would like to admit ("7.31 in female and 6.54 in male children younger than 1 year per 100,000 live births" in Finland, according to Kauppi et al., 2010). In all likelihood, these parents didn't need  the stressor of autism to commit these unspeakable acts; they were also dealing with other stressors and mental illness as well. 

For individuals to use these murders to further their agendas is heinous. Even where one could argue that the attempt is to gain better support, it is still irresponsible, as it represents an inaccurate portrait of both the parents who overwhelmingly cope well as well as allowing for the potential demonization of the disabled. "Oh, well, that would never have happened if the mom hadn't been dealing with a disabled child" is complete and utter rubbish.

While there should be some commonalities that everyone in the autism community can get solidly behind, like the issue of filicide, not even here can we achieve any kind of real unity.

Too many children in this country are killed by their parents, but far too often those deaths receive no nationwide attention. One such murder alone is too many. Of course, our attention is brought to bear when we hear autism in conjunction with a child murder, and we try to make sense of it.

 It doesn't mean we can, though, and the need to use these deaths to push one's agenda is wrong. It's wrong to suggest that parents kill their children because the autism was too hard to deal with and the support too inadequate. Ultimately, this works to put the blame on the autistic individuals and society at large while excusing the person who actually committed the crime. 

Should we have better supports in place? Yes. We should. Should we use these filicides to argue that without it there will be a rash of these murders? No. No. And again, no. Why? Because if these homicides are an accurate picture of the number of children with autism who have been killed over the last ninety days by parents, then the filicide of autistic individuals is not occurring in the US at a greater rate than the prevalence of autistic individuals. What, how can that be?

Three to five children a day are murdered by their parents in the US. So over the course of this summer, some 450 children will have been killed by their parents. 

450 kids. Where is the outrage over this? I suspect that just as certain places ignore the reality that ADHD is found in 6% of the population compared to the 1% that autism appears to affect, that this is irrelevant to them because it doesn't advance their agenda.  What doesn't promote their view of reality is ignored, both intentionally and through disconfirmation biases in place. 

Acording to Bourget et al. (2007), "Results of numerous studies indicate an association between filicide and parental psychiatric illness, with major depression with psychotic features most common.2,5,9,12,2830,5056 Bourget and Bradford9 noted that 31 percent of parents who committed filicide had a diagnosis of major depression, compared with none of the perpetrators of nonparental homicide. In a review of 131 case reports of filicide, Resnick5 found that 75 percent of the parents displayed psychiatric symptoms, including major depression and schizophrenia, before the offense. A recent review of 85 filicide cases in Turkey57 showed that nearly half of the perpetrators had diagnosed psychiatric disturbances, including schizophrenia (61%) and major depression (22%). In reviews of maternal and paternal filicide cases in Quebec between 1991 and 2001, Bourget and Gagné12,28 found that 85 percent of mothers and 56 percent of fathers had diagnoses of major depressive disorder or schizophrenia/other psychosis." 

Yes, parents with mental illnesses should have supports in place. And if this were the argument, one would be hard pressed to argue against it. But it isn't. In essence, people are arguing that the autism is to blame, and hence the autistic child. If the child weren't such a burden, then parents wouldn't be driven to this. This is despicable. And it doesn't end there, as people go on to blame adults on the spectrum who advocate a more accurate representation of autism in the media and in organizations. 

Yes, stressors are a factor, but to suggest that it is the stressor of dealing with their autistic children alone that pushes these parents over the edge is inaccurate: "This review allows a comparison of filicides perpetrated by mothers and fathers. A significant proportion of both male and female perpetrators have depression and/or psychosis. Personality disorders, particularly borderline personality disorder, are also frequently seen in both men and women. Other similarities between men and women who commit filicide include (1) the presence of significant life stressors; (2) social isolation and lack of social support; and (3) a history of abuse in childhood" (Bourget, et al.). Focusing on how stressful dealing with autism is for parents also dismisses the fact that "According to the American Anthropological Association about 200 women kill their children in the United States each year. Three to five children a day are killed by their parents."

Autism may be the excuse offered, but it doesn't mean it's the reason. A Dallas woman murdered her two young children because, according to her 911 call, they were autistic. While our attention is focused on this case, as parents in the online community argue that media attention is on this case because of autism, and speculation amongst some parents runs to the paranoid ("Make autism parents look crazy and that's why they have autistic children. This  all feels like one big CIA human experiment."), it's important to consider larger societal issues regarding filicide.

What kind of people kill their children? Is this really about the autism, the disability, and an inability to cope because of the situation? Or is there something else at work here?

Yes, stress plays a big role (Bourget, et al.; Kauppi et al., 2010), but it's important to note that stress alone is not enough to make someone commit filicide. And, again, if somehow folks are missing that, it's wrong to blame autism. 

Farooque and Ernst (2003) examined filicide and some of the conditions that appear to be involved in cases. They note that the US Justice Department reported that in 1999 there were over "1000 children died as a result of maltreatment where the alleged perpetrator was the child's parent."

The literature on filicide actually goes back a ways; Farooque and Ernst point out that Resnick in 1969 set out a classification system for why parents kill their children and note that intellectual impairment of the perpetrator was not part of the classification system. Indeed, they note "Nearly forty years later, it is apparent that
these constructs have added little to the understanding of the etiology of filicide and, more importantly, have often distracted investigators from more mundane and practical factors such as intellectual capacity and/or substance abuse of the perpetrator." If categorizing why parents say they do despicable acts isn't adequate as explanation, examining the mental health of the perpetrators can at least provide a window into the act.

According to  Farooque and Ernst, "Maternal mental illness has been found to be especially important in the incidence of filicide." Faroouque and Ernst summarize the current state of knowledge on filicide thusly: "mental illnesses, including psychotic symptomatology and affective illnesses, were frequently found in both male and female perpetrators of filicide."

Farooque and Ernst expanded their study to also examine the intellectual capacity of individuals who committed filicide during an eight year period. Their findings are interesting:
 Only one of the 19 cases revealed an Antisocial Personality Disorder while 10 of the 19 cases satisfied the diagnostic criteria for substance abuse/dependence. Two of these were intoxicated at the time of the crime. Only five subjects were psychotic at the time of the crime. On the other hand, eight of the 19 had some level of mental retardation. Of these, four scored in the borderline range (70-84) and four were in the range of mild mental retardation (55-70) based on DSM-IV criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2001).1 We also found a positive relationship between borderline or mild mental retardation and evidence of child neglect by the perpetrator prior to the filicide event. Eight subjects revealed evidence of having perpetrated child neglect/abuse and, of these, seven satisfied the criteria for borderline or mild mental retardation. These subjects were significantly younger than those with normal intelligence.
Hatters Friedman et al. (2005) found that "Over three-fourths of our filicide-suicide offenders had evidence of  mental illness. Less than two-thirds of those with mental illness had  been in mental health treatment." 

It would be convenient to twist this most recent filicide as an indictment of particular ideologies within the autistic community (indeed, this has already begun). The blame for these two children's murders does not rest in the autism community or in one particular faction of it. It does not rest with the public service announcements created by Autism Speaks (as some at Age of Autism would like to suggest). It doesn't rest with neurodiversity advocates. It doesn't rest with those who would cure autism at any cost. The blame rests squarely on the mother's shoulders.

There isn't enough information about this mother, her exposure to the autism community, her mental health, her level of support, period to answer why she did this act, what led her to that monstrous act. Is it more than likely, based on the research that has been done on filicide, that she is mentally ill? Yes. Does her lack of affect in the 911 call suggest mental illness? Yes. Can you be mentally ill and intentionally premeditate the murder of your children? Yes. Should she be held legally responsible? Yes, one way or another, she should be held accountable for her actions. They are reprehensible and without defense. Looking for other people to blame to further one's own ideology is irresponsible.

We do, as a society, need to do a better job of providing support to families, at providing education, and appropriate mediations. Was this a family in need of better support? What access to services were there? Was there a history of mental health issues? Speculation is pointless. Waiting for the facts in the case make sense here. What does seem clear is that the mother did do this. What is clear is that this is an unacceptable act. 

So, leaving that aside, what do we know about parents of autistic children, coping-wise? Pottie and Ingram (2008) found that the severity of autistic symptoms was not correlated with parental daily mood. They found that in "terms of significant predictors of daily positive mood, on average, 10 coping responses were found to predict daily positive mood." Pottie and Ingram found that "higher levels of daily positive mood were predicted by" the following type of coping: "Seeking Support coping," "Problem-Focused coping," "Positive Reframing coping," "Emotional Regulation coping,"  and "Compromise coping" while "lower levels of daily positive mood were associated with "Escape coping," "Blaming coping," "Withdrawal coping,"  and "Helplessness coping." 

In other words, how parents choose to cope is more important than the severity of the situation they are dealing with. If you're feeling overwhelmed, if you're feeling under-supported, then you need to reach out, you need to let people know. And we need to be there, be ready and willing to offer our shoulders and our time to those who are struggling.


Bourget, D., Grace, J., & Whitehurst, L. (2007). "A Review of Maternal and Paternal Filicide." J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 35:1:74-82

Farooque R, & Ernst FA (2003). Filicide: a review of eight years of clinical experience. Journal of the National Medical Association, 95 (1), 90-4 PMID: 12656455

Hatters Friedman S, Hrouda DR, Holden CE, Noffsinger SG, & Resnick PJ (2005). Filicide-suicide: common factors in parents who kill their children and themselves. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 33 (4), 496-504 PMID: 16394226

Kauppi A, Kumpulainen K, Karkola K, Vanamo T, & Merikanto J (2010). Maternal and paternal filicides: a retrospective review of filicides in Finland. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 38 (2), 229-38 PMID: 20542944

Pottie, C., & Ingram, K. (2008). Daily stress, coping, and well-being in parents of children with autism: A multilevel modeling approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 22 (6), 855-864 DOI: 10.1037/a0013604


Anonymous said...

"Ultimately, this works to put the blame on the autistic individuals and society at large while excusing the person who actually committed the crime." Well said, bravo. We should not be blaming the victim for the crime. Mostly it's women who are raped. Does that mean it's her own fault for being a woman? Nope!

Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is a duplicate comment. Thanks for your informative post. The one concern I have is that now stigma will be shifted from autistic children onto mentally ill parents, while the majoiry of mentally ill parents will not commit filicide. I think that, while all factors should be taken into accoutn, such as parental stress and mental illness, they should never become an automatic excuse (mentally ill people can get an insanity defense in rare cases, of course).

Sirenity said...

Well done Kim!. Makes me so furious that some people feel that a child being autistic is justification for abuse (including painful woo medical treatments) and murder.

Roger Kulp said...

It's fairly obvious that the mindset these people have,is one filled with hatetred,and one that is centered around death.The parent who would kill an autistic child,is the same one who would allow that,or another child,to die of measles,for all of the tired old reasons we keep having to bring up.The stupid does get tiresome don't it?Is it any wonder so many of these people are right-wing christians?

kathleen said...

You kicked some righteous ass! I am beyond furious and disgusted over the misuse of this tragedy in order to promote an agenda. Innocent people were killed. people.
I do not believe for one minute that anyone who is mentally stable would kill their children.

David said...

It's a notorious fact that media attention on child abductions and/or murders falls disproportionately on a small number of cases. The most enduring and infamous bias is that such crimes committed by "strangers" account for well under 1% of all cases, yet continue to be "stereotypical" in news and popular culture. It would seem that crimes against autistic children are emerging as another "red herring" for the media.

Roger Kulp said...

Totally OT,but everybody who reads this blog needs to see this.


Anonymous said...


Neuroskeptic said...

Excellent post. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are willing to take cases like this and project their own obsessions onto the ultimate tragedy.

Jim said...

Not sure how I missed this while I was grappling with the idea of how to defend against the concept that *I* was the biggest threat to the health and wellbeing of my own daughter. Glad to have found this post NOW, however.