Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 6, 2013

Parents of autistic children offer perspective

BY ANNE STANTON astanton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Parents of autistic children expressed empathy for Kelli Stapleton, a Benzie County woman accused of attempting to kill herself and her autistic daughter, Issy.

“I don’t judge her, and it was absolutely not the way to handle it,” said Sherry Ginn Richards of Interlochen. “But when you get to that point, you can’t think rationally. My heart goes out to them because I’ve been there, and I know what it felt like.”

A dozen years ago, Richards and her husband “knew” their 8-month-old son was autistic, but couldn’t get a diagnosis or help. Sounds and touch set him off, and he didn’t sleep at night, only taking three short naps a day. He cried incessantly, and Richards rarely slept.

“One night 48 straight hours, he cried. I put him in the car, drove for 45 minutes, hoping he’d fall asleep. He was still crying when he got home,” she said. “I laid him in his crib and he vomited from crying so hard. That was the moment that all I could see was a lifetime of this and no hope. I picked him up out of his crib, I was going to shake him, I hate to admit it. I was crying, I was screaming. And then I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’

“I went into the bathroom, locked the door and banged my head against the window. I put my head through the glass and sliced my neck up. I didn’t even feel the pain. They labeled me as suicidal, but I never felt like I was trying to kill myself, I don’t even think I was trying to hurt myself. I just wanted to dull my senses so I couldn’t hear the crying anymore.”

The moment was a wake-up call. Richards sought therapy for the whole family. Her son, now 13, takes academically gifted classes and has many friends.

The alleged murder-suicide attempt came shortly after Kelli Stapleton posted on her blog, “The Status Woe,” that her daughter, Issy, 14, could not attend class at Frankfort Junior-Senior High School. Stapleton acknowledged Issy was capable of “great violence” and many schools would not accept her, but expressed frustration with the apparent decision.

Richards believes Stapleton must have been deeply disappointed, especially after seeking out an expensive treatment program last February.

“You can be certain Issy also felt hurt and sadness and all those same emotions,” she said.

Chris Morey of Traverse City said school was the only break for he and his wife, who, quite literally, couldn’t leave their young son, Guy, alone for a minute. Their son would throw a 16-ounce candle at his face with “perfect accuracy,” hit him in the head with a crowbar, walk into the middle of a busy street, or send the TV crashing to the floor.

“They weren’t isolated occurrences — they occurred daily — many times, for more than a decade,” he said.

When Guy was 11, a psychiatrist worked with an autism expert and dispensed two drugs that finally broke the cycle of violence. His is now 21 and much better, but the couple worries about what his future holds when he leaves school several years from now.

Andrea Hentschel, president of the Autism Network of Northwest Michigan, said she was “heartbroken in every direction” after learning the news.

She said there’s a lack of support and hope for families with children who exhibit a wide range of problems, from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder. Parents not only deal with the stress of their child, but also getting help.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield, for example, requires children get a diagnosis to qualify for extra services, but they must be seen by a “Center of Excellence.” There are only five such centers in Michigan, all downstate, she said.

“You’re asking a loud, even screaming child, with a sensory disorder to sit in a car for several hours, and then sit for another three to eight hours of testing, and then drive back?” she said.

Hentschel said the University of Michigan can’t give her an appointment until 2015.

Christie Minervini, who does not have an autistic child but has followed Kelli Stapleton’s blog, believes the “system is messed up.” The government will spend tens of thousands of dollars to imprison Stapleton rather than a fraction of that to help Issy, she said.

“I hope they both recover fully,” she said.