Disabilism and the Demonization of Autistic Children

This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.

—Jim Sinclair, Don’t Mourn For Us

Most of you have heard about the case of Saiqa Akhter, the woman in Texas who allegedly murdered her two autistic children, Zain (age 5) and Faryaal (age 2).  In her 911 call, she described trying to force them to drink bathroom cleaner and, when they refused to swallow it, strangling them with a length of wire.  Zain died later that day; Faryaal was placed on life support and died the following evening.  In explaining why she had killed her children, she said “Both are autistic. I don’t want my kids to be like that. I want normal kids.”

The deaths of these two children are a tremendous loss, but you’d hardly know it to read the responses of “autism experts,” who spend more time bemoaning the stress on the mother than the horrific nature of her actions.  For example, Marguerite Colston, vice president of constituent relations at the Autism Society of America, told ABCNews.com, “That a family got to that point of stress is unfortunately not uncommon … The stress levels on parents [of autistic children] are extraordinarily high,” she said, noting that one study found that “stress levels were comparable to combat soldiers … You’re now a case manager and a specialist, and it’s almost like you’re not a parent anymore.”

This kind of statement blames the victim.  I will not argue the fact that the stress of raising an autistic child can be extreme.  What I will argue against is the idea that an autistic child creates stress that somehow explains the taking of that child’s life.  I’m troubled by the fact that people look for “extenuating circumstances” when an autistic child is killed, but rarely when a non-autistic (or otherwise non-disabled) child is killed.  In the latter cases, most of the time, the mother is painted as a monster, and there is no attempt to explain her actions at all.

Take the case of Susan Smith, who killed her two (apparently typical) children in 1993 by strapping them into their car seats and sending her car into a lake.  I can’t remember a single “expert” saying that her being a single parent, or being involved in a sexual relationship with her stepfather, or having a history of depression, explained her actions.  The single parenthood, incestuous relationship, and mental health issues were almost universally seen as moral failings on her part, aspects of her life that she could have changed and overcome by an act of moral courage and sheer force of will.  She was condemned for what she did, and that was the end of the story.

Nor can I recall a case in which a minority woman killed her children and an expert attempted to explain it, with a straight face and on the national news, as the logical outcome of circumstances such as isolation, racism, a family history of abuse, urban violence, and poverty.  These are circumstances that mirror battleground conditions far more acutely, and for far more people on the planet, than the stress of raising an autistic child and yet, the outcry against using the “race card” would be immediate were anyone to try to use these circumstances to explain killing one’s children.  And rightly so.  So why is there so little outcry against people using the “autistic card” to explain the deaths of two innocent disabled children?

Could it be that so few people see autistic children as “innocent”?  Could it be that autistic children are stigmatized with words like “unemotional,” “lacking in empathy,” and “inhuman,” language that makes it nearly impossible to see the children as the actual living, breathing, whole human beings they are?

Equally troubling is the fact that so many people seem willing to ascribe the killing of the children to the mental illness of a lone individual, rather than to the social and cultural messages acted out by that individual. In responding to the deaths of Zain and Faryaal Akhter, Dr. John Lutzker, director of the Center for Healthy Development at Georgia State University, said that raising autistic children can result in mental health issues for parents:  “Parents who have children with autism have disproportionate stress and depression compared with the general population,” he said.  “It seems like this woman may have some other issues that went undetected.”

While I can’t pretend to know what went on in the mind of a mother who slowly killed her children by strangling them with a piece of wire, there are many other possible explanations for her behavior besides mental illness, explanations that have everything to do with the underlying messages of the society at large—a belief that her children weren’t whole people, a sense of entitlement to a “normal” life, a lack of empathy for her children’s acute experience of the world, and a general sense that life had cheated her by not fulfilling her dreams.  I’m troubled to read so many people say that she must have been insane when there are very deep-seated, widely accepted social beliefs implied by her words. I suspect that it’s easier to think that the individual must be insane than to look at society’s beliefs about the worth of autistic people, how dangerous those beliefs are, and how deeply they are entrenched in the minds of so many people.

With all the concern for the difficulties of the mother, where is the concern for the difficulties of the children? Where is the empathy for their acute experience of the world?  Why does no one say that there are rational, explicable, understandable reasons for their behavior—reasons that put the burden on their mother to protect them every day of their lives?  Where are the voices explaining the struggles of autistic children everywhere?

By her own admission, Saiqa Akhter killed Zain and Faryaal because she wanted “normal” children.  She killed them because they were autistic.  She killed them because she didn’t want the children life had given her. Far from simply being the actions of a lone and troubled individual, her decision to end the lives of her children speaks volumes about how our society sees people who are different from a mythical “norm.”  In fact, it speaks volumes about the very power of the word “normal” and its insidious impact upon all of our lives.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s Disabilism and the Demonization of Autistic Children first appeared at Journeys With Autism and is republished here with permission.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s recently published book is The Uncharted Path: My Journey with Late-Diagnosed Autism.

(image:  Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, “After Summer Rain“)

on 08/6/10 in featured, Society | 3 Comments | Read More

Comments (3)


  1. Patrick says:

    That woman was in full frame of mind when she killed her kids. She made the causes choice to wrap that length of wire around the necks of her own children fully knowing what would happen if she did so. Her determination was simple: My children autistic and that makes them abominations and thus worthy of death. She is a murderer! She has no respect for her children’s social difference. This woman has no mental illness…. What a cop-out for a mule that simply gave into her primitive urges. This act was one of intolerance and haltered…. Hate of a children’s social difference that she refused to understand. This woman refused to see past her own misconceptions. She made her choice fully knowing what the outcome would be. And the response by this George state professor proves the foolishness of the people within the mental health system and their lack of empathy towards anything different from their precious protestant uniform standards and false notions of “norms”. This is an issue that can’t be hidden away with bullshit and sugar-coating. She is a murderer and thats all there is to it.

  2. Patrick says:


  3. […] was murdered, and after Jeremy Fraser was murdered, and after Glenn Freaney was murdered, and after Zain and Faryaal Akhter were murdered. The story goes like this: it is understandable that someone would kill their […]

Leave a Reply