Alex Spourdalakis: an atrocity, not a tragedy

Picture of Alex Spourdalakis, a white teenage boy, lying in a hospital bed with a cuff around his right wrist which is attached to the bed, with him holding an object of some kind in his mouth. He is covered by a white sheet from his waist down.Last week I heard the news that a 14-year-old boy with severe autism, Alex Spourdalakis, had been murdered by his mother and another female carer in a suburban area near Chicago after they had made appeals to get what they considered suitable care for him. Alex himself was first given an overdose of painkillers and when that failed to kill him, they stabbed him in his chest. They then attempted to take their own lives by an overdose, but were found alive and are now in custody, charged with first-degree murder. The American media (the story was not broadcast in the UK, although the Daily Mail reported it on their website) branded it a “tragedy”, quickly attributed the murder to the difficulty of caring for a boy with a learning disability, and implied that it had been waiting to happen. This is the stock response to the murder of a disabled child, and it’s wrong. (More: Ariana Zurchner, David Gorski @ Science-based Medicine, Wendy Baskin, Michael Scott Monae jr, Jo Ashline, Kassiane @ Time to Listen, Same Difference.)

A few months ago, the same two women put out an appeal on the Internet for some “appropriate” care to be found for Alex, and he was shown lying on a hospital bed, restrained by his wrists and ankles to the bed (very unusual, especially for minors), naked except for a sheet which covered his genitals and part of his chest, putting some object on a stick into his mouth or playing with a tablet computer. In March, he was discharged from the hospital when a benefactor put up the money for him to be transferred to an unnamed facility and on 8th May, it was reported on the “Help Support Alex Spourdalakis” Facebook page that he was “doing very well and [was] receiving the medical treatment that he needs”. On the 27th, however, the same page reported that he was back in hospital, back in bed in restraints, and showed Andrew Wakefield claiming that he was going to be sent to a long-term pyschiatric facility in the next 72 hours unless “the autism community” found a better place for him where he could “complete the treatment” and “be on the necessary diet”. When people asked why he was back in the hospital when he had been doing well, they received no satisfactory explanation. Equally without explanation, he was discharged back to his mother’s care and the next that was heard was that he had been found dead on 10th June.

There have been a number of blogs reporting that his mother was heavily invested in the “autism biomed” industry represented by Wakefield and by the Age of Autism website. They promote expensive and elaborate methods to “cure” autism which include chelation and bleach enemas, although it is not clear if either of these methods had been used on Alex (the theory behind the former is that autism is caused by heavy metal poisoning from vaccines, and chelation is indeed indicated for heavy metal poisoning, but the quantities involved are much higher and taken in more recently than in treating autism which is supposedly caused by vaccines). The so-called support group must answer as to why Alex had to be returned to hospital in May and why he was discharged. There is much that they are not telling us, particularly as they solicited money to pay for Alex’s care and treatment. I expect that Loyola hospital and the Illinois social services will have much to answer for, as to why the former allowed his discharge (twice) and why the latter did not intervene when he was being abused so obviously and publicly. The excuse that he was big and strong and needed restraint does not stand up to the most superficial scrutiny either — he was quite large, but you can tell with one look that he was flabby.

Katie McCarron, a three-year-old white girl in a blue gingham dress, playing with a pink soft toyThere have been a number of incidents in many countries where parents have killed disabled children and presented various excuses such as that they were in pain and that killing them put them out of their misery. In this case, there are a lot of people saying that Alex is now in heaven and his suffering (i.e. his autism) is over. A similar case happened in Illinois in 2006 in which a 3-year-old girl with autism, Katie McCarron, was murdered by her mother Karen, and there was the usual outpouring of excuses that it was “understandable” or was the result of a “lack of services”: in fact, as her grandfather said, she enjoyed life, was surrounded by love (she lived with her grandparents and not her mother) and enjoyed things that other children, and particularly other little girls, enjoyed. There have been other cases where this was touted as an excuse both by the murderer and by ill-informed people in the media and blogosphere defending them, when their doctors believed otherwise: Tracy Latimer in Canada and Tom Inglis in the UK are well-known examples. Various explanations are suggested: that someone is ashamed of being the parent of a disabled child, is weary of looking after them, or cannot comprehend that a life affected by severe disability or pain is worth living, perhaps because they do not know anybody who lives with these things.

I do not doubt that some parents are under pressure and snap, but this family had access to an awful lot of help, and chose murder instead, and planned it over a week or more. A lot of people are only too ready to identify with the feelings of parents, when there is more obvious suffering on display here — a confused boy, in pain, strapped to a hospital bed, moved from pillar to post, and finally murdered by the two women who were supposed to be caring for him. It may be that they were let down by the health, education and social service systems, but it seems the biggest failure of these services was to leave Alex with those two women. They had access to so much help, but chose murder instead.

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