In the news this week: Myka and James Stauffer, YouTubers who revealed that they’ve given up their adopted child Huxley, who has autism, to another family. According to articles in CBS News and Global News, the Stauffers adopted Huxley from China in 2017–with the financial help of sponsors and YouTube subscribers–already knowing that he was developmentally delayed. Huxley was subsequently featured in many sponsored (money-making) videos. Myka used her experiences with him (and with her other kids) to give parenting advice.
To their disappointment, the Stauffers found that Huxley wasn’t as advertised. They claimed that his developmental delays were much greater than they’d been led to expect. The therapies they tried didn’t fix him, or didn’t fix him fast enough. They revealed that Huxley had meltdowns, during which he harmed himself by banging his head and also sometimes harmed others in the family by biting and hitting. All of these behaviors communicate (and produce) distress.
There’s a difference between a meltdown and a tantrum. Meltdowns result from sensory overload, while tantrums have a purpose and are under more control. That is, people can stop a tantrum once they get what they want, or once they realize the tantrum isn’t working. (Tantrums can sometimes turn into meltdowns, though.) Autistic challenges with communicating about needs or experiences are factors in meltdowns. Trying to express yourself in a stressful situation can be like trying to send a text using a rotary phone.
The Stauffers added two babies to their family after Huxley, so the levels of stress and distraction in the house were heightened. Myka kept the videos coming. She showed Huxley’s therapies and treatments. She proclaimed that he had helped her to “quit giving a damn about what other people think.” Except it’s not that simple, is it? The livelihoods of family vlogging YouTubers like the Stauffers depend on what other people think of their content, and their content is their children. Without subscribers, there aren’t sponsors, patrons, or dollars.
In September, 2019, Myka made a video noting that she was “heartbroken” to reveal that Huxley had been diagnosed with autism. This is a typical and understandable (and ideally, temporary) reaction to such a diagnosis. There’s a positive side, though, to defining a child as on the spectrum. First, the parent can gain a better understanding of the child, along with solid information on what treatments are useful to help the child develop. Second, parents can be hooked into a support system they may not have in real life–other autism parents.
For instance, as a mom of someone on the spectrum (and on the spectrum personally), I would have been happy to give Myka advice on meltdowns. Sometimes we had them daily for weeks (sometimes months) on end. I would have told her to become a detective, finding the clues for when the barometer is getting low–they are always there if you look for them. Then try to short-circuit things before the senses boil out of control. If that’s not possible, make (or find) a comfortable place where it’s possible to shriek and pummel or curl into a ball, etc., without injury to person or property. And then, always, the autopsy: once things are calm for a while, go back over the incident to find the flash points where a different behavior might have made a different outcome. That’s the short-term crisis management part. The long-term stuff–because this takes TIME, not just a year or two–involves the person with autism acquiring self-calming skills and communicating skills. Then meltdowns don’t happen as much, and when they do, they aren’t anywhere near as destructive.
I would have advised her that dealing with a child who’s different and having a tough time is not a matter of not caring what people think. Side-eyes are always going to sting. It’s figuring out how to have confidence that you’re doing a good thing in that moment. Maybe it’s leaving your shopping cart behind while you get a raging child from the busy store to your quiet automobile, passing neighbors mutter about your parenting skills. Maybe it’s stopping in the middle of the coffee run to walk and breathe with your kid. Most important is to remember that these moments are a couple of frames, not the whole movie.
Huxley dropped off the video scene, and by May, 2020, he’d had been handed off to another family. The Stauffers said that this decision was based on the advice of medical professionals that their home was not the best place for him. Lots of tears–maybe a few of them crocodilian–were featured in the video where they revealed this development. Of course it was a terribly difficult decision, one that had to consider all family members, not just Huxley. Every child is different, and it’s impossible to assess in advance what taking care of any kid will be like. Some people applaud the Stauffers for accepting their limits and making a decision that will presumably eventually be better for Huxley even though, with their platform, they will surely be criticized for taking this step.
I feel ambivalent. I keep wondering what the Stauffers would have done if Huxley had been a child physically born to them. Would they have given him up to a different family after a couple of years spent trying to fix him? Even before the handoff, some videos where mother and father talked about “family time” after Huxley had been put in bed for the night hint that Huxley was always seen as an auxiliary rather than integral feature of their household. Maybe the medical professionals they consulted were concerned about risk to the child with the parents’ the growing emotional distance and frustration.
Poor Huxley, or lucky Huxley: it’s hard to say. I hope his new home provides him with support that will let him grow up happy and productive.
As for the Stauffers, I’m sure they’ll continue to generate lots of content for the vlog.