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Trudy Steuernagel had no illusions about the difficulty of raising her profoundly autistic son Sky Walker. He spoke in repetitions of words, like "good" and "Mommy," and when overwhelmed, the 6'1", 200-lb. teen could lash out. Steuernagel, a popular Kent State University professor, lamented her inability to penetrate his mysteries: Why did he endlessly watch The Price Is Right and why would he wear only blue shirts? "I want to know if he is happy," she wrote last year, just after his 17th birthday. "When he gets so frustrated, he strikes out. Is there anything I could do?"

Now, friends and family are asking a more urgent question: What will happen to Sky in the wake of a horrific turn of events? After Steuernagel, 60, failed to show for class Jan. 29, police sent to her home found her badly beaten and unconscious in the kitchen; Sky, now 18, was in the basement and fought his arrest, kicking a deputy in the mouth. When his mother died eight days later, he was charged with her homicide. "We're treating it as we would any murder," says Portage County, Ohio, prosecutor Victor Vigluicci. "It's really a case of evidence, forensics and crime scene." Friends worry the tragedy will be compounded by prosecuting Sky for killing the one person who meant the most to him. Sky can't even understand the charges, says defense attorney Gian M. DeCaris, who adds, "We do not believe he ultimately will be competent to assist us."

Trudy certainly understood Sky. A renowned scholar of gender politics, Trudy and her husband, Scott Walker (from whom she separated in 1999), picked their son's name after Trudy felt the first kick of pregnancy while listening to the song "Sky Dances." She redirected her research to autism when her son was diagnosed at age 2. But the challenges didn't prevent a happy life, including trips to Disney World. "She would say, honestly, that Sky is a handful, and it's difficult," says her colleague Steve Hook. "But she always felt like it was manageable."

But there was no underestimating the realities. "As he got older, it just became more of a strain," says Hook. Although Sky was in public school with an assigned aide, Steuernagel was the one on call to calm him. In a March 2008 campus newspaper essay, she described his ritual of stepping into his shoes and putting his feet on her lap so she could tie his laces. "Some days," she wrote, "those were the only blissful 17 seconds in my day, but they sustained me." She also wrote, ominously, "Try spending an evening sitting in a closet with your back to the door, trying to hold it shut while your child kicks it in."

She continued to find small joys—like the "trail of sparkles" left as Sky cut the silver wrapping of fruit bars into confetti—but conceded her growing isolation. "I couldn't be a friend to anyone because I physically and emotionally could not be there for them," she wrote. Sky's inability to provide any answers has frustrated the investigation. Says Portage County sheriff David Doak: "There's just no one there you can communicate with."

Sky still faces a competency hearing. If the judge decides he's not fit for a criminal trial—with a possible sentence of 15 years to life in prison—two options exist: The prosecutor can argue Sky committed the murder and seek an identical sentence in a state hospital. Or the judge can send the case to civil court, where Sky could be ordered into mental-health care and, possibly, released. But autism advocates say that treating him as a mental-health patient is also a mistake. "He needs to be in a group home," says Rory McLean, president of the Autism Society of Greater Cleveland, "not in a psychiatric facility."

Above all, say Steuernagel's friends, she would want the case handled with sensitivity. "Trudy more than anything would want her son taken care of," says Molly Merryman, a colleague. "But she also would recognize that she wouldn't want anyone else to be at risk." Says friend Sarah Hastings: "This isn't a case of good versus evil. We love every person involved."

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  • With Nicole Weisensee Egan/Philadelphia.