“I’ve terminated the life of my autistic child,” Jose Stable, age 50, told police on the morning of November 22 outside Kelly Towers, the Bronx apartment building where Mr. Stable, a single parent, lived with his son Ulysses, age 12, who was later found lying in the bathtub of their 16th floor apartment, his throat slashed. Delete “autistic” to contrast the derangement of the alleged killer of his own child with the innocence of the victim. Re-insert “autistic” to learn that the child ate grass, weighed 280 pounds (a likely side effect of medication) and tried to touch neighbors in the elevator “in an agitated way, not a friendly way.”
Mr. Stable has a record of ten arrests; those for which information was available did not involve his son. A number of autistic children have been killed by their parents in recent months: the social profiles of the alleged perpetrators vary but the media focus on the challenges of raising an autistic child is constant. Reporters interview parents, neighbors and professionals never autistic persons though some might surely offer valuable insight. Since Ulysses was labeled as “severely” autistic it might be argued that a “higher-functioning,” “verbal” autistic person’s viewpoint would be of limited value; indeed the popular misperception of autistic persons as socially withdrawn and incapable of empathy might seem to disqualify them altogether as useful sources. But lost amid all the clamor over ’causes and cures’ is a growing body of evidence that this is all wrong; that the communication disorder in autism involves wiring misconnections between parts of the brain; the signs we read as aloofness and withdrawal are in fact practical responses to sensory dissonance. Which means that autistic kid in front of you understands, in ways of his/her own, exactly what’s going down around them.
Kelly Towers stands in view of the Fordham University campus where I worked for four years prior to a move to our Lincoln Center campus. Two years ago the Curran Center put on a conference on the great Jesuit sociologist Joe Fitzpatrick; while speaking with folks in the neighborhood that might have remembered him for his work with the Latino community I found myself asking priests and others if they were encountering more autistic persons or hearing more about it. They were but seemed as puzzled as me as to what might be done locally to help. A Bronx parent/advocate’s initiative led to on-campus informational sessions that sparked some student interest but the kids were oriented toward service in their hometowns just like us, with our 90 minute commute to Central Jersey.
Two years later I still don’t know just what might be done though thanks to a plug from our friend and colleague Mark Naison, Curran Center’s Oct. 27 conference on autism and advocacy drew a really strong Bronx contingent, which witnessed alongside others an autistic self-advocate’s impassioned presentation.
As the parent of an autistic child and an historian there’s quite a lesson in humility here. We can so readily size up the goofs of the past but you just know that in 10, 30, 50 years from now books and documentaries will find in our collective response to this autism phenomenon (which in the past week alone was subject of Newsweek cover story, a New York Times Op-Ed piece by prominent Washington policy guy/communication executive parents and big news on the fund-raising front) much ignorance, science fiction and self-delusion. But we do the best we can with our very poor human tools, as Dorothy Day liked to put it, quoting Eric Gill who surely was quoting someone else again. Just as Dorothy also liked to say she longed and worked for a world where it was a little easier to be good; so too must we work for a world where it’s a little easier (and safer) for autistic persons to simply live, which is why we remember each day Katie McCarron; William Lash; Ryan Davies; Christopher DeGroot. And Ulysses Stable.