All that glitters: the great American story

Darren D'Altorio

Ch. 1-Listening

I walked into this conversation Monday morning in the newsroom of Franklin Hall.

“I can’t believe there is a $2 million bail for an autistic kid accused of committing attempted murder,” a guy wearing a brown hat said, shaking his head.

“Yeah,” boomed another person nearby as he removed the earbud headphone from his left ear. “Does he even know what he did?”

A third person entered, informing the other two he went to high school with Sky Walker.

“He was pretty messed up,” he said. “I don’t think he has a clue.”

In case you’re unaware, what Sky Walker did a little over one week ago, according to police reports, was assault his mother, Gertrude Steuernagel, a political science professor at Kent State.

Now, “Trudy” is dead. The injuries she suffered were too severe to come back from.

In the wake, we as a community are left with conversations like the one I walked in on. We are left with the simple “how” and “why” questions but no answers to satisfy the curiosity.

We are left with a desire, stemming from pure human compassion and intellect, to learn everything we can about the rare cases like this when love’s thin line between harmony and rage is distorted.

I didn’t know Trudy or Sky. I never had her class. I never even saw her face until I saw the headshot in Monday’s paper.

But the more I learn about Trudy’s relationship with her son Sky, from eavesdropping on random conversations, the more I know love was the anchor in their relationship.

“There was a note on her syllabus,” a girl who had professor Steuernagel’s class this semester said. “If she had to leave class to attend to her son, she was sorry, but she had to go.”

She had to go because they needed each other.

Ch. 2-Informing

According to the Daily Kent Stater column “My son’s trail of sparkles,” written by Trudy and published in October 2007, Sky was diagnosed with severe classical autism just before his 3rd birthday.

Autism is an incurable mental disorder that appears during early childhood and affects the ability to communicate and interact with others, according to

The spectrum ranges from mild to severe, but common symptoms are present in every case. On the contrary, there is no predicting what symptoms will be present, or if those symptoms will dissipate or worsen with time.

The symptoms of autism, according to, are manifested in a concoction of behaviors, including obsessive-compulsive rituals, hyperactivity, attention deficit, inability to communicate verbally, sensitivity to light and desensitization to pain. But, in rare cases, autistic children can be classified as savant, possessing accelerated intelligence in areas of art, math or music.

And that’s just a sampling of the Molotov cocktail this condition presents to researchers attempting to understand it and parents fighting to raise a child with it.


“Their brains are a mystery and fascinating,” said Ashley Smith, a six-year private tutor of autistic children.

Every day, efforts are made to understand what is going on inside the minds and souls of autistic children. But the battle raging within them to have a voice, express feelings and fit in creates an uncontrollable onslaught of emotions, Smith said.

She has experienced those emotions physically over the years in furies of screams, kicks, pinches and bites unknowingly directed at her and the other people trying to help, teach and love these kids.

As autistic children grow, so do their physical strengths. But, in some cases, the mind is left behind – stuck in the rhythms and routines of childhood.

In Trudy’s column, she reflected on teaching Sky how to use scissors as a child, watching him fumble and fail. But, in time, he learned how to use them.

At age 16, he loved to cut the cellophane wrappers from strawberry fruit bars into “confetti-sized pieces” and throw them all over the house, just like a child.

Now, at age 18, that child is under public scrutiny, being held in jail for the attempted murder of his mother, “dance partner” and best friend.

Opinions differ – rehab, mental institution, prison – on how to deal with this fragile case. But one thing is for certain, and Trudy unknowingly and accidentally foreshadowed it.

“Neither of us will write the great American novel,” Trudy wrote. Well, she was wrong. Their lives have become the makings of a great American novel, up there with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” and “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Just as great novels teach us to understand other’s experiences and probe deeper into societies’ facades, creating a sense of enlightenment and understanding of truth, Trudy and Sky’s story provides us with the perfect platform to challenge our perceptions about a very misunderstood condition in modern American culture.

Their story has left a glittery trail, leading into the dark, unexplored corners of the human mind. And the glitter will illuminate the path to a greater understanding, so long as we let it.

Darren D’Altorio is a senior magazine journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].