Autism Awareness Month: In the home

Dennis A. Brown II

Dennis A. Brown II

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series. Published during Autism Awareness Month, the series focuses on how serious the strain of autism can be because it can lead to some serious or tragic consequences. Part 1 addresses parenting children in the Autism Spectrum Disorder.)


During my childhood my parents couldn’t figure out my behavioral problems. I wasn’t diagnosed as being in the Autism Spectrum Disorder until the age of 17. I visited a family therapist every week throughout my senior year of high school. I was later diagnosed with severe Asperger’s Syndrome. My father did an online investigation on my condition and presented it to the doctor before I left the hospital after having an extreme bout with depression. If you’re the parent of a child with autism, patience is a must. and the Maher Law Firm of Winter Park, Fla., states that nearly one in five children with autism are physically abused. Signs of abuse include sudden changes in behavior or performance in school, physical or medical problems being neglected, learning difficulties, anticipating the worst, no adult supervision, being excessively withdrawn, not wanting to come home, unexplained injuries, and being scared of adults.

Colleen Allen, president and CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, says when children with autism are 5 to 7 years old, parents may have an easier time of handling the symptoms. As the children age, however, it’s more challenging. Here are two incidents that happened in Michigan including one that drew national attention:

On Sept. 3, 2013, Kelli Rai Stapleton, a wife and mother of three from Battle Creek, took her teenage daughter Isabelle (nicknamed “Issy”), who was diagnosed with severe autism and would show acts of aggression as she aged, to a rural area in Blaine Township. Kelli lit two grills inside a van in a murder-suicide attempt. They survived the carbon monoxide fumes, but Isabelle suffered brain damage. Kelli said she became extremely frustrated when the family’s private insurance company stopped paying for Isabelle’s treatments and the education plan changed. Kelli was charged with attempted murder that would’ve resulted in a life sentence. To avoid the trial she pleaded guilty to first-degree child abuse, was sentenced to 10 to 22 years in prison, and was ordered to surrender her parental rights. Her husband, Matthew, a high school principal, divorced Kelli and took custody of the children.

Before sentencing, Kelli was interviewed by television psychologist Dr. Phillip C. McGraw (“Dr. Phil”) where she called the Benzie County jail a “kinder warden” then “the jail of autism.” What was so ironic was that Kelli was an advocate for autism awareness. It’s baffling that Kelli received a lighter sentence because she knew what she was doing. Ari Ne’eman, president and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, says lenient prison sentences like what Kelli received could make other parents want to harm or kill their special needs children.

On June 12, 2015, Melvindale police responded to a house and found John Richett Jr., 58, and his 20-year-old son, Nicholas, who had autism, dead from gunshot wounds in the rear bedroom from a murder-suicide. A family member called police when John didn’t answer the phone. A suicide note also was found in the home. It was alleged that John was in poor health and feared that Nicholas would be neglected.

How can these incidents be prevented? It’s difficult to answer because autism is a spectrum disorder that’s difficult to diagnose. Questions related to attention deficit disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder also are contributing factors.

When the child is first diagnosed, parents should seek counseling that should include developing a plan on having the child receiving adequate care should the parents be unable to do so, especially if things change in the way of insurance and education.

Dealing with children who have autism is frustrating and challenging. What parent wouldn’t want to say, “Enough is enough! I can only take so much!” As Dr. Phil might say, “There’s no ‘check out window’ when it comes to parenting,” especially with special needs children. My parents never gave up on me.

(Next week: Find out how badly some children with autism are treated by teachers and administrators, how a couple of teachers get away with it, and how one student with autism died after being restrained.)

(Dennis A. Brown II is originally from Louisville, Ky., and currently lives in Dearborn. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in February 2007 at age 35. He’s a former radio broadcaster and currently works for a private security company. In addition to writing commentaries, he records public service announcements about autism awareness for non-commercial radio stations based in metropolitan Detroit area schools.)