The death of George Hodgins, a 22-year-old man with autism, at the hand of his mother early this month, caused a great deal of anguish—to those who knew them, of course, but also to many who find murder by a parent and protector to be the cruelest of tragedies. But it’s still causing anguish, and anger, weeks later, for a different reason: because the responses to the murder/suicide have touched on very important and emotional issues within the community of people whose lives are affected by autism.
When parents kill children, we tend to immediately look for a reason for such a shocking crime. Surely it was an act of extreme mental illness, of psychosis. We look for the stressors that might have driven someone to do such an appalling thing—in this case the responsibility of caring for a non-verbal child with autism was identified as something that might have driven Elizabeth to a melt-down. A reason isn’t necessarily an excuse, obviously, but it can sound like one, and it can be meant as one.
This is the way it was interpreted by many in the autism community, as was very articulately summarized by Shannon de Roches Rosa in an impassioned piece last week in which she reacts with rage to the media coverage implying that George Hodgins was the “cause” of his mother’s homicidal breakdown, and that his murder was somehow less disturbing because of his severe autism. “Mainstream media reports have focused almost exclusively on how difficult life was for his mother,” she writes, “framing parents killing disabled children as an understandable tragedy, while parents killing typical children is considered a preventable tragedy.”
Shannon is no stranger to the challenges George Hodgins’ mother faced. “I do not lack empathy for Elizabeth Hodgins. How could I? I am her: by all accounts, George was the 22-year-old version of my son Leo.” But she makes a very compelling argument for what some in the autism community are calling a civil rights issue: that we simply do not recognize or acknowledge that people with disabilities are fundamentally equal to other people. “We live in a culture that conditions us to devalue, fear, and dismiss children like George and Leo, that sees them not as people with rights but as problems—ideally, someone else’s.”
Tough as it might have been for his parents, she writes, “George had the same right to live out a full happy life as any mother’s child. His autism did not make him imperfect, unworthy, or less of a person than a neurotypical child.”
Over at Thautcast, Landon Bryce, who also wrote passionately about the murder, and the perception that it was “on some level justified,” is now responding to critics who felt his comments in defense of George Hodgins’ rights to “personhood” were aggressively anti-parent. The trigger for this accusation was a provocative graphic he created for a vigil for George in the Bay Area with a text that read: “Remember disabled people murdered by caregivers and family members.” The response comes in the form of two videos in which he does a good deal of soul-searching, wondering out loud whether his aggressively activist voice has become off-putting, like some of the more strident voices of the feminist movement in the 1970s that, he recalls, came across as anti-male.
Landon thinks he’s perceived as more extreme in his attitudes than he really is. “I think this comes from the fact that it’s unusual to hear an autistic person talking about himself as though he expected to be accepted as autistic, professional, and equal, all at once. That’s just not comfortable for people.” He admits that there are other factors—”I’m also obnoxious”—but he notes that when his partner accuses him of being too extreme in representing one point of view, “It’s hard for him to recognize how little this point of view I’m representing is heard. There’s just not a lot of us out there saying that autistic people should be treated as equals.”
There it is again, and we’re going to be thinking more and more about what that means, I predict. For his part, Landon ends with this: “I’m going to encourage myself to really try to indulge anger less, to really try to look at somebody who might want to be my friend and help, and, rather than being angry about things they do that I think are disrespectful, to try to find the parts of people that want to help.” Amen.