Myka Stauffer, a popular social media influencer, recently apologized after getting intense backlash for placing her adopted son with autism with another family.
Cynthia Martin, a psychologist who specializes in autism and has adopted two children with special needs, argues that Myka shouldn't have apologized for that decision.
The family demonstrated that they hadn't prepared properly for the adoption and didn't offer their son the therapy he needed, according to Martin.
Martin argues that the family should've apologized for using the child as a prop for their social media narrative and for missing an opportunity to educate their followers about autism and international adoption.
After facing intense backlash, Myka Stauffer, a popular YouTuber, issued a public apology to her followers last month for "rehoming" her adopted son with autism. But Myka shouldn't have apologized for placing their child with another family. From what she and her husband revealed, the couple hadn't properly prepared to raise a child with disabilities, and were resistant to doing the hard work required to support him. Her son may very well be better off with a family that will.
Instead, Myka should've should've apologized for using her son as a prop for her picture perfect family — and for monetizing him on social media along the way. More importantly, Stauffer should've apologized for not capitalizing on an opportunity to educate her more than 700,000 followers about what's truly involved in adoption, and in raising a child with autism.
I'm a child psychologist with 15 years of experience specializing in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and practice at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. I've also adopted two children with special needs from China. I'm intimately familiar with both issues, what's involved in each, and the painful stereotypes that still persist.
If someone as admired as Myka could've lifted the veil on what it takes to adopt and raise a child with special needs, she could've helped to foster more acceptance and understanding, while also chipping away at dangerous myths.
Myka Stauffer adopted a boy with autism in 2017 and monetized her posts about the experience
In 2017, Myka and her husband — who have four biological children — adopted their son from China. Throughout the process, they shared a plethora of details with their prodigious following, and collected funds to help with the associated fees. Many of her adoption posts were sponsored by such major brands as Dreft.
But the characteristically open couple only occasionally mentioned their son's autism diagnosis and struggles, such as his difficulty speaking and tantrums.
When his behaviors became too much for them to bear, they tried to write him out of their story.
This spring, without an explanation, Myka suddenly stopped mentioning her adopted son in her Instagram feed. When followers pressed her for an explanation, she and her husband eventually revealed that they had placed their child with another family because of his behaviorial and emotional challenges. The announcement caused an uproar among her followers.
The reaction was understandable.
From the start, Myka's savioristic portrayal of international special needs adoption was inaccurate. She filled her feed with filtered photos and talks of fulfilling a "calling from God." Her depiction of parenting a child who has autism were similarly far-fetched. She disregarded medical advice and engaged in questionable disciplining tactics. This recent apology was no different.
I adopted 2 children with special needs from China and know how involved the process is
Having adopted two children from China, I know what it's like to prepare as much as possible, and still get medical surprises.
We adopted our youngest child — a two year old girl — in January. She was born with a major congenital abnormality that will require a series of reconstructive surgeries and lifelong medical care. We consulted with numerous physicians, surgeons, and parents who have children with similar medical needs.
Before boarding our flight to China on New Years Eve, we thought we were ready. We weren't.
When our daughter was placed in our arms, we realized the seriousness of her condition. She was frail, sick, and in a lot of pain.
Once we returned to the US, we drove from New York City to Boston, so she could be seen by a renowned surgeon. She discovered a 3-centimeter bladder stone. Through blurred jet lagged eyes, our baby was admitted for surgery and a two-week hospital stay.
Our youngest daughter's needs were so dire, we barely had time to take photos
We took maybe a handful of photos that entire first month. I cannot imagine having had the time or energy to curate pictures and videos for others on social media.
All adopted children, whether or not they have disabilities or medical issues, require immense amounts of attention in the early stages. That means many other responsibilities and pastimes have to take a backseat for a while, even if it means taking a break from a lucrative social media account.
The Stauffers' son was initially diagnosed with a brain tumor in China. While conferring with a US doctor pre-adoption, Myka she said that she stopped listening and let the information go "in one ear and out the other." She was already set on bringing this child into her family, without fully taking into account what it would require of her and her husband. Myka Stauffer admitted to only completing one day of online videos to prepare for the adoption
In her recent apology, Myka admitted to only undergoing minimal preparation. She said she just completed a day of "online videos" in her pre-adoptive parent training. The two times we adopted from China, we had multiple visits with a social worker, attended adoption parenting classes, read books, joined support groups, and talked to other parents who have children with similar special needs.
When a child is first adopted, that can be an especially vulnerable period for them
We outlined every possible "worst case scenario" for our children and cancelled all social plans for the months after bringing them home. Maybe the Stauffers did not have the same requirements from their agency, or maybe they went through the motions to check off boxes without truly digesting the information.
The Stauffer family later learned that their son didn't have a brain tumor, but had seizures, suffered a stroke in utero, and had significant delays in his cognitive and physical developments. He was eventually diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder with accompanying cognitive and language impairments.
His ability to communicate verbally was limited. He relied on sign language, and experienced frequent meltdowns.
The Stauffers waved off proven methods and medical advice. Myka told her followers that she was against using devices, such as a visual system, which may have helped her son communicate.
While lounging near a pool, she also disclosed to her followers that she switched from a higher-quality speech therapist to one that was more budget friendly.
The Stauffers enforced harsh disciplinary tactics. They taped their son's thumb to prevent him from sucking it and were surprised that his tantrums increased as a result.
I've seen many children like the Stauffers' son come through my office who have moved on from challenging behaviors, learned to communicate well, and have gone on to lead happy and fulfilling lives. But it takes patience and a lot of work.
Autism is on the rise in the US and the Stauffers could've used their platform to educate others
Autism diagnoses are on the rise. One in 54 US children had autism in 2016, up from one in 88 in 2000, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.
When the Stauffers got their son's diagnosis, the attractive and popular family were handed an auspicious opportunity to help normalize the experiences that parents of children with autism often face.
For one, children with autism tend to have strong preferences and dislikes.
A child could find being forced into certain clothing materials to be intolerable and uncomfortable against their skin. It may mean the family has to either not match for a photo or that they all have to change to cater to the child's needs. A child might resist posing for a staged family photo altogether, a staple of the Stauffers' Instagram feed.
They could've shown how seemingly simple things become difficult. Running out of a specific brand of yogurt, for example, can trigger a two-hour long meltdown. Taking a bath, clipping nails, or being asked to share the iPad with a sibling can lead to prolonged crying, screaming, and — at times — more aggressive behaviors.
Children with autism, especially at a young age, can require as much as 20 hours of therapy a week.
They could have shown what it's like to orchestrate therapies and services for a preschooler that is comparable in intensity to an Olympic training schedule. It's expensive and it's consuming. It can mean putting more effort and time into one child over the other children.
What the Stauffers must have quickly learned is that parenting an adopted child with autism may not be a made-for-Instagram experience. It doesn't always provide the easy and satisfying scrolling that bedroom makeovers and smoothie videos do.
There are few influencers who show the realities of autism or adoption
Perhaps Myka's followers would've appreciated more candor on the topic and could've, in turn, been more open to children in their communities who have ASD. Parents of children with autism would likely have appreciated having a comrade in the public eye combating the many judgments they face.
Only a small percentage of completed US adoptions end up getting dissolved— between 1% and 5%. When adoptive parents terminate their parental rights, it's not uncommon to hear that they felt ill-prepared because they truly thought love was enough.
For some adopted children, spending time with one family for an extended period can help facilitate a more appropriate match the next time. But for other children, the placements don't stop there.
For the sake of the Stauffers' son, I hope Myka did the work this time around. I hope she conferred with true experts to identify her son's needs and the right parents to address them with love and appropriate therapy. I hope she was right when she said that he was placed in a new home that was a "perfect match."
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