It’s five in the morning. I have been sitting in my dark house, drinking coffee, reading about Alex Spourdalakis, a 14-year-old boy who was murdered by his own mother on June 11. Alex wasn’t just murdered, he was savagely murdered. First his mother and his godmother/caregiver, Jolanta Agatha Skrodzka, tried to kill Alex by giving him an overdose of sleeping pills. According to the Chicago Tribune, Dorothy Spourdalakis stabbed him four times in the chest with a kitchen knife, including twice in the heart, and then slit his wrist, almost severing his hand. Alex Spourdalakis was severely autistic.
My house is dark and quiet, but soon my kids will be up and my house will be noisy, breakfasts made, animals fed, kids laughing and bickering and asking when it’s time to swim, my oldest son telling me about some new band he likes and my daughter asking me to help her put tiny dolls shoes on some fashion doll and my middle kid kissing me and asking How is your day when my day hasn’t really started yet because that’s what he does. My children aren’t autistic. My children have no emotional or developmental or medical problems. I cannot imagine. Unless we have an autistic child we can’t imagine.
When my kids were younger I would go to the bookstore on Sundays, because even though my kids are *neurotypical they are still kids, and all parents have this, the wanting, the needing the asking the quarreling even the laugher at times can wear on you. I would go to the bookstore and buy magazines or a book, a fancy coffee and just sit for an hour or so, my time. No kids. My husband left alone with them while I had my little break. One day when I was leaving I heard a scream, a horrifying scream, the scream all parents recognize as that of a child. I saw a crowd had gathered in the children’s section around a young boy who was flailing on the ground, crying, his arms and legs lashing out, the bookstore manager raising her voice at at a father. I overheard him from a distance.
My son is autistic. Can you please make these people move away I can calm him, we will leave.
If you don’t control your kids I’m calling the cops. You need to leave.
She stormed away from him, the father going to his child, the crowd dispersing and I confronted her, in the way that someone does when they are upset but they have no idea how upset until they try to articulate it. I think I told her she handled it terribly. I told her the young boy couldn’t help it and she had no right to treat the father and son that way. Then I stormed off to my car and unlocked the door and sat with my head on the steering wheel and cried for about 15 minutes before I finally went home and broke down again in front of my husband. I should have done more, in hindsight I should have went to the father and offered to help or called the corporate office of the bookstore or told that crowd of gawkers to move the hell away but I didn’t. I never went back to that bookstore.
Three months ago, Alex Spourdalakis had been receiving care at Loyola University Medical Center. His mother had brought him in with intensive stomach pain and sought help for his digestive issues. She ended up with her child restrained to a hospital bed for over 21 days. They suggested his mother place him in a mental institution. His mother wanted to take care of him at home, she felt that the treatment he was receiving was neglectful, abusive, and that she could better care for him than the sort of treatment he was receiving in the hospital. Alex was a big boy, 200 pounds and prone to outburst, nonverbal and at times violent. Autism activists from all over the world campaigned for Alex, and raised enough money so he could be at home with his mother. Numerous reports I have read this morning, from her, from others, speak of the intense love she had for her son.
After Dorothy and Jolanta murdered Alex, Spourdalakis gave a knife to Skrodzka and Jolanta killed the family cat. The woman then cleaned the knife and returned it to the butcher block holder on the counter. In a letter they wrote to be discovered later, they said they did not want the cat to go to a shelter. They took sleeping pills, a suicide pact after murdering Alex, and they went into his bedroom and locked the door. They were discovered by Spourdalakis’s ex-husband when he called the tiny apartment the women and Alex shared above a plumbing store. He had called the residence and received no answer. Both women have been charged with first degree murder and are being held without bail.
My house is still dark and quiet and I just can’t stop crying. A UK newspaper posted the photographs of Spourdalakis and Skrodzka after their booking and I will look like them, these middled aged women who have the faces of middle aged women who have cried, the grief is so overwhelmingly evident on their faces and I cannot imagine the desperation these people were under. To kill a child, to slaughter a pet, to take sleeping pills in order to end their own lives just because they couldn’t take it anymore. How easy it is just to judge these women.
But I can’t, and you can’t. Unless you are a parent of an autistic teenager who knows what it is like when there are no answers, and there is no magic formula, and there is little help, unless you can afford the type of care a child like Alex needed in order to stay in his home, with his mother who loved him. There are numerous Facebook pages about Alex, now some in memoriam, and numerous speculations about vaccinations and abnormalities in brain structure and environmental toxins. There is still no answer for the how’s and why’s of autism. There is still no cure. We see the television commercials, with tow-headed adorable children with autism hugging their parents and playing simple board games, but rarely do we see the teenage boy with no verbal skills, strong and frustrated and prone to violent outbursts. We can’t know, unless this is our child.
There is no easy answer, there are few solutions, there is no cure. My heart is broken beyond words for Alex, and also for his mother and godmother. I cannot even fathom what desperation drove them to this. But I do know we all need to do everything possible in finding support for parents of autistic children, especially older ones, and we need to hear more from the parents of children who are dealing with autism. I would never dare to speculate that I can understand what it’s like caring for a child with severe autism, the joys, the frustrations, the heartaches and the love, but we all need to try. For Alex, for the thousands of kids like him and their parents, we need to do better.
I don’t have a child with autism. I’m not part of the autistic community. But this morning, in the dark, my heart breaks along with everyone else’s. I wish I could have done something. All we can do is try to do more. I’m sorry.
*Edited: I had the word “normal” but I was informed that this word is offensive and “neurotypical” should be used. Thank you so much for the reader who suggested this.
(Photograph of Alex Spourdalakis /Facebook. In this image he is sleeping. I couldn’t bear to show a photo of him restrained)