What's Autism Got to Do With It?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

How do we make sense of the murder of William Lash IV, an autistic 12-year-old from McLean, killed by his supposedly loving, well-respected father? After living with my son Nat's severe autism for 16 years, I am no stranger to hardship and struggle.

The lowest point in my life was when Nat attacked me at the subway station. Though 11, he was almost as big as me, and I had my infant son in my arms, with the stroller hanging heavily from my wrist. None of my parent training would have prepared me for that moment of sweaty panic as I struggled to slip the stroller off my arm, hold on tightly to the baby, and fend off Nat's clawing hands.

I remember the agonizing thoughts running through my brain. This was the most severe of many such episodes in the preceding few months. I felt myself going to a dark place in my mind, down that "what if . . . ?" path. Life would be so much easier had he not been born or if he were. . . .

That evening, I cried as we began to make arrangements to put Nat in a residential placement. My sadness collided with my guilty relief, as I dared, at last, to imagine our life without Nat: travel, going to parties easily, visiting other families.

In the end, I just couldn't send him away. As hard as things were, it just did not feel right. And so we hung on; we got through it, with calls to supportive family, new medications and the healing passage of time.

The thing I know now, that I did not know then, is that many parents with or without disabled children have similar devastating moments, filled with terrible wishes. Autism does not make my family unique or its circumstances more tragic than those of any other family. That is what makes the stories about William Lash, and Christopher DeGroot and Katie McCarron, all the more horrifying. These children were killed by their parents, and the way the stories read, presumably because of their autism.

Like those parents, I have seen some pretty dark days because of autism. But I have also known some of my brightest moments because of my autistic son. Understanding Nat and autism have certainly been difficult, excruciating at times, but by now, so have certain other challenges life has thrown my way.

No question, dealing with autism without understanding it is difficult. But murdering because of it? Unfathomable and inexcusable. We all have our own sack of troubles, as my great grandmother, a pogrom survivor, used to say. And to paraphrase another survivor, Tina Turner: What's autism got to do with it?

-- Susan Senator

Brookline, Mass.


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