Isabelle "Issy" Stapleton is a teenage autistic girl. She has survived abuse and, at age 14, a murder attempt by her mother Kelli Stapleton.
The attempted murder received mixed reactions. Some people sympathized with Kelli, blaming Issy for being autistic. The autistic community, on the other hand, gave an outpouring of support and empathy for Issy.
ABA, particularly Lovaas ABA, has been highly criticized by autistic people and their families for how easy it is to turn into abuse. ABA usually focuses on compliance (i.e., complete obedience). ABA can be dangerous when the student's feelings (from discomfort to panic) are ignored, or when it is used to suppress all autistic behavior including stimming and the need to avoid eye contact.
"It was always directed toward me. Her um anger and aggression. Always toward me. I wondered if that was a consequence of doing a Lovaas replication program. Because I’ve been in her face since before she was two years old. It was always touch your nose. Touch the apple. Do this. Do that. And you know, um, maybe this is sort of a natural consequence to that. I’m not really sure. But I’m sure at this point it is some sort of shaped behavior. Because sometimes even making eye contact with her will trigger a response."
Issy was placed on a token system, as is typical in ABA, in which she could earn tokens by having "quiet hands and feet" (i.e., suppressing any stims), and was not allowed to "perseverate." Issy, who had not been violent before, soon begun to lash out. This may have been a fear response, as Quiet Hands can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Issy may have experienced this therapy for around ten years.
One day Kelli Stapleton took her daughter camping, saying they would make s'mores. Kelli lit two charcoal grills as they sat inside the van, waiting for them both to die.
"The reality is [Kelli] lost hope and had the delusion that people's lives would be better without Issy." - Matt Stapleton
Kelli's then-husband Matt called the police, who rescued both mother and daughter. Issy said "I love you, Mommy" before entering a three-day coma. Both Kelli and Issy were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning following the incident.
Relatives of the Stapleton family argued against Kelli's portrayal of herself as the victim. They noted that Kelli was receiving plenty of help with Issy, who had spent almost 8 months at a residential treatment before the attempted murder.
"Many [family members] contradicted the mother’s description of Issy. They said Issy was fine with other family members and care workers. Kelli tweeted that aides had offered her tips on how to manage Issy’s behaviors in a way that wouldn’t cause meltdowns, and she rejected their advice." - Samantha Crane
"She claims to be the victim. A mother's supposed to protect," said Issy's aunt Sarah Ross.
Issy's grandmother Eileen Stapleton criticized Kelli, noting that she had "unbridled freedom" while Issy attended treatments, school, or was left with aides. Kelli had time to blog, write books, and travel, including a month in Africa. Eileen considered the attempted murder-suicide to be a cry for sympathy, not an act of love.
“The truth is, Kelli didn’t want Issy anymore. She made it look like it was unselfish and loving, but it was not unselfish and loving.... If she wanted to kill herself, she would be dead. She loves herself too much.”
Eileen also speculated that Issy's violence towards Kelli may have been justified. She hated that Issy was portrayed as a monster by the media.
Trial and Conviction
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) reached out to the prosecutor, thanking her for taking the attempted murder seriously. They submitted a third-party statement asking that the sentencing be treated the same way other attempted murders be treated.
Kelli Stapleton was sentenced to 10-22 years in prison, consistent with the typical sentencing guidelines for similar crimes against all children. ASAN noted that this sent the message that Issy's life was just as valuable as that of a non-disabled child.
Issy suffered brain damage and remained in a coma for several days. When she awoke, she was able to ask questions, make requests, and smile.
Issy Stapleton recovered in the hospital and was able to return home. Her motor skills have improved and she has been able to do schoolwork.
Issy's father Matt Stapleton stayed with her during recovery and divorced her mother.
News websites often portrayed Kelli in a favorable light, stating that that the attempted murder was a desperate, understandable act. They frequently described Issy as violent.
The 9 and 10 news gathered testimonies from Kelli's friends, which painted her as a "friendly, funny" person who was at her last straw when Issy's "violent episodes" continued.
One writer counted a 15:3 ratio of news stories focusing on Kelli versus focusing on Issy.
Kelli Stapleton appeared on Dr. Phil to share her side of the story. Dr. Phil said that he did not support her actions, but sympathized with her and wished her the best.Dr. Phil was criticized by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Autism Women's Network, and The Arc for reckless disregard for autistic life and the potential for copycat murders.
A spokesperson for Dr. Phil stated that "We are proud of our broadcast and stand by the content 100 percent."
“Kelli’s actions are indefensible, and sensationalizing this family’s tragic story only hurts the public’s perception of autism. Issy’s voice, or the voice of a peer on the autism spectrum, should have been heard by the millions who tune into Dr. Phil.”
Lenience towards filicide is part of Autism Speaks' history, including the militant language and pity of autism awareness, and its "Autism Every Day" video in which Alison Tepper Singer discusses her thoughts of murder-suicide and is portrayed sympathetically.
"Murder is murder. However it is a fact that some parents do not believe that they have any other viable options. We cannot avoid the fact that all too many parents windup [sic] committing suicide because they conclude that they don't have viable options, we must develop and better communicate the existence of these other options so that parents do not go off the final deep end." - Gary Mayerson, board member at Autism Speaks
A group called "Friends of Kelli Stapleton" started a fundraiser for Kelli. It raised $16,355.
Support for Issy
Autistic people and their allies shared concern over Issy. Some wrote her messages and open letters, offering comfort and encouraging her not to blame herself. She was also welcomed to join the autistic community. As one woman wrote, "There is a community out here waiting to fold our arms around you."
"Dear Issy... There is no justification for harming you, ever ever ever. I'm so sorry that the only promises I can make are really not enough. I am so sorry that you live in a world that tries to justify hurting you. Sorry and angry. Not angry at you. Angry at everything, ever, that tells us that you are less than. You are not less than anyone."
Parents and allies also sent Issy their love. Jess from Diary of a Mom stated that she wanted to tell Issy "that she's going to be okay. That she was never, ever, not for a fraction of a second, to blame for what her mother did that awful day." ASAN also directly addressed Issy and pledged to try to prevent similar crimes.
"And to Issy Stapleton, the only victim of this tragedy, the only person whose voice deserves to be heard here, we say: what your mother did was not okay, and it wasn’t your fault. There is a whole world of people who support you. We are sorry this happened to you, and we are doing everything in our power to make sure it can never happen to anyone, ever again. You deserve nothing less."
Autistic people and their loved ones took serious issue with the way Issy was portrayed in the media. Autistic mother Amanda considered it victim blaming.
Judy Endow noted that the media's response was very different from that of when a non-disabled child falls victim to attempted murder, and addressed the underlying assumption that it is better to be dead than to be disabled.
Scrutiny of Autism Community
Many autistic people, and some parents/allies, criticized the mainstream parent communities' response to the tragedy.
Autistic writers described how frightening it is for autistic children to hear that their life is less important that their caregiver's feelings, and that some live in fear that their caregivers will hurt or kill them.
They were angry when blamed for not being there, arguing that they had warned against ABA and abuse for a long time, and called out dehumanization similar to the way Kelli wrote about Issy, but that people rarely listened. Non-autistic writers also mentioned this.
Sympathy with KelliAutistic people and their allies were horrified by some autism parents' expressions of empathy with Kelli.
After pleas to imagine how difficult life was for Kelli, some parents responded with the hashtag and Flash Blog #IAmNOTKelliStapleton. #WalkInIssysShoes developed as a response to suggestions that people "walk in Kelli's shoes" before judging her for the murder.
Those "poor parents." Really? Were they the ones killed by adults they loved and trusted? And do you really understand how you could stab your child multiple times, as Alex's mother did, or lock yourself in a car with your child and a couple of charcoal grills, as Issy's mother did? In what kind of world are these "understandable" actions? - Shannon Des Roches Rosa
Many autistic people stated that Issy was being mistreated, and that this could lead to violence.
Autistic writers have noted that their parents, too, would physically interfere with them. This could lead to violence. Aggression, they recommend, should be carefully investigated so that they can find out why the autistic person is acting this way. Parents should learn how to defuse the situation.
Services Ending Murder
Beth Ryan criticized the notion that lack of services caused murder, arguing that this suggested that parents would naturally murder their children if they felt unsupported. Ryan argued that this was akin to a threat against autistic children if the community were to fail to provide enough.
“This isn’t about services. And when we say, give us more funding or parents will kill their kids, we are saying, very literally: give us more money, or the kid gets it.” - ASAN director of programs Julia Bascom
Ryan strongly believes in the need for support, but feels it should not be framed in terms of murder prevention.
"The conversation following the murder centered around lack of services and sympathy for the mother. As it always does.... It is tempting to negotiate with terrorists. Especially when the threats of violence are credible."
DehumanizationAutistic people have noted that Kelli's blog is very similar to those of many "autism parents" in the Autism Speaks type community.
"If you read Kelli’s blog, you will not think it unlike many blogs written by parents of Autistic children. For instance, you probably would not dream of posting a video of a typical teenager at his most vulnerable moment. But parents of Autistic children do so habitually...
Parents prone towards these acts of betrayal of their children are not merely poor parents. Because the ones that I’ve seen and am speaking of are also prone towards despicable acts of emotional and verbal abuse towards Autistic adults that are brave enough to face their wrath.
This tells me that these parents have devalued, not only their children, but Autistic people in general."
PreventionMother Deanne Shoyer analyzed murder-suicide cases including that of Issy and Kelli Stapleton. She argued that a shift from gloom-and-doom awareness to acceptance may help prevent future caregiver murders and violence.
"If most of these crimes are committed by people who are either mentally healthy or are able to comprehend that what they are doing is wrong, the only ‘prevention’ strategy we have is to do everything we can to change attitudes – both personal and societal."
Due to the horrific nature of the subject matter, all references have a general trigger warning. Ones that are specifically anti-autism (e.g. articles with writers who sympathize with Kelli) are marked.
- Love Explosions: Kelli Stapleton. Still Relevant.
- Love Explosions Resources: compliance, ABA, social skills, indistinguishability, whole body listening (A compilation of autistic and parent perspectives. Some carry trigger warnings for abuse, trauma, and ABA.)
- Love Explosions: the cost of non-compliance is unreasonable
- My Thoughts On Issy Stapleton, & The Raw Deal She Got On The Dr. Phil Show
- Julia Bascom: Quiet Hands
- The Caffeinated Autistic: On Stimming and Why "Quiet Hands"ing an Autistic Person is Wrong
- 9 and 10 News: Kelli Stapleton's Ex-Husband Speaks During Her Sentencing
- The Daily Beast: The Mommy Blogger Who Tried to Kill Her Autistic Daughter Talks to Dr. Phil
- Thinking Person's Guide to Autism: How ASAN Helped Issy Stapleton Get Justice
- Michigan Live: As Kelli Stapleton sentenced in autistic daughter's poisoning, other girl asks: 'What happens to my mom?'
- ASAN, Disability Community Statement on Sentencing of Kelli Stapleton
- ASAN Statement On The Sentencing Of K. Stapleton
- New 2000: Autistic Teen Girl Whose Own Mother Tried to Kill Her is “Awake” and “Responding” (contains ableism and slight sympathy with mother)
- Up North Live: Issy Stapleton "doing amazing" as she recovers
- 9 and 10 News: Friend Speaks Out About Kelli Stapleton (trigger warning)
- Ischemgeek: Michael John Carly, you are wrong.
- The Arc Weighs In on Dr. Phil Shows on the Case of Kelly Stapleton
- Amy Sequenzia at Autism Women's Network: Open Letter to Dr. Phil and His Apologists
- Screenshot posted at Boycott Autism Speaks
- Huffington Post: Autism, Stigma, and Murder
- CNN: Why London McCabe's death matters
- Love Explosions: Where was I when Kelli needed help?
- Michigan Live: Mom's alleged attempt to murder autistic teen prompts national, Kalamazoo response (trigger warning for quotes from murder sympathizers)
- Friends of Kelli Stapleton fundraiser (trigger warning)
- Autistic Community Vigil in Memory of Alex Spourdalakis, Murder Attempt on Issy Stapleton, and All Those Murdered Because They Are Disabled
- Radical Neurodivergence Speaking: To Issy Stapleton, with love.
- Mosaic of Minds: An Open Letter to Issy Stapleton
- It's Bridget's Word: For Issy
- Amy Sequenzia: Dear Issy
- A Diary of a Mom: Room to Heal
- ASAN Statement On Dr. Phil Episode Featuring K. Stapleton
- Nature in the City: Issy Stapleton and Autistic Victim Blaming
- Judy Endow: It is wrong to murder your autistic child
- Radical Neurodivergence Speaking: I could have been Issy Stapleton
- #IAmNOTKelliStapleton: Shame on Anyone Defending Her Actions
- Flash Blog: Walk in Issy's Shoes, not Kelli's
- Don't you dare tell me that I could have been Kelli Stapleton
- Raising Rebel Souls: The right to mourn
- BlogHer: We Cannot Excuse Parents Who Kill Autistic Children
- #IAmNOTKelliStapleton #WalkInIssysShoes Flash Blog
- #IAmNOTKelliStapleton #WalkInIssysShoes Flash Blog: If You Walk On Issy's Shoes from Amy Sequenzia
- Shaping Clay: Bodies and Behaviors
- We Are Like Your Child: A checklist for identifying sources of aggression
- Violence as a Means of Expression
- Love Explosions: Terrorist Threats
- Small But Kinda Mighty: Is there anything we can do to prevent parents murdering their disabled children?