Autistic Future
September 16th, 2016

Autism And Suicide: How Many More?


Sep­tem­ber is Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Month, and this is the oblig­a­tory state­ment on some­thing I want to be fin­ished dis­cussing. Sui­cide is a prob­lem for Autis­tic peo­ple. A year rarely goes by with­out at least one fair­ly high-pro­file attempt or cri­sis tinged with sui­ci­dal­i­ty. Sui­cide lurks, with the oth­er ear­ly killers like eat­ing dis­or­ders, along the fringes of our lives pick­ing off acquain­tances, col­leagues, and friends. It’s hard to pin­point the cause of the prob­lem because there has been rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle research on men­tal health and qual­i­ty of life for Autis­tic peo­ple alive today, but there are obvi­ous issues that might be con­tribut­ing to these deaths.

Good men­tal health care isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly avail­able to Autis­tics. Some Autis­tic peo­ple who take med­ica­tion report extreme­ly long tri­al-and-error peri­ods before find­ing work­able drugs. Not all men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als are suf­fi­cient­ly famil­iar with autism to make Autis­tic clients feel com­fort­able. Prac­ti­tion­ers may have a hard time spot­ting peo­ple at seri­ous risk of sui­cide when an Autis­tic per­son­’s intense suf­fer­ing man­i­fests in uncon­ven­tion­al ways. There is prej­u­dice among men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als, too. When peo­ple are strug­gling, the last thing they want to do is posi­tion them­selves to encounter demean­ing treat­ment. Repeat­ed bad expe­ri­ences with men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als make peo­ple reluc­tant to keep try­ing, which is one rea­son Autis­tic adults who know they need help don’t always seek it. The lucky few who live in com­mu­ni­ties with autism-friend­ly prac­ti­tion­ers may still strug­gle to access care because of the pover­ty that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. Some­times, care is sim­ply unavail­able to peo­ple with the most sig­nif­i­cant needs. 

Such social prob­lems are prob­a­bly also a fac­tor that dri­ves up our sui­cide rate. Even the best men­tal health care can’t solve prob­lems that arise out­side of the indi­vid­ual. Autis­tics face soci­etal bar­ri­ers to the two things that may be the only uni­ver­sal human desires: con­nec­tion and auton­o­my. Com­pan­ion­ship is a human need, a rea­son to keep going when life’s many chal­lenges arise. Too many Autis­tics are nev­er empow­ered to find the place where they can slip into some pos­i­tive social role, nur­ture oth­ers, and be cared for in return. So long as they remain iso­lat­ed, these peo­ple will be par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to sink­ing under the bur­den of the human con­di­tion.

Auton­o­my and hope are cru­cial, too. Recent media cov­er­age of fal­ter­ing, white, work­ing class com­mu­ni­ties in Amer­i­ca has cit­ed despair as the under­tow that is pulling whole towns toward ear­ly graves. This is a prob­lem for the many Autis­tic adults whose options in life are very lim­it­ed. Peo­ple who need hous­ing sup­ports are lucky to find even one good, near­by option. Long wait­ing lists for ser­vices and tight eli­gi­bil­i­ty require­ments can pre­vent young adults who want to become more inde­pen­dent from leav­ing home. Peo­ple who don’t dri­ve can­not inde­pen­dent­ly decide where to spend their time in much of the coun­try. We live in a soci­ety where work is often part of per­son­al iden­ti­ty, and mon­ey is the key to inde­pen­dence. Our unem­ploy­ment rate is appalling even by dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty stan­dards. Col­lege or trade school may improve one’s odds, but hous­ing sup­ports are an issue there, too. Where does that leave an Autis­tic twen­ty-some­thing, even with­out under­ly­ing men­tal ill­ness, who is unem­ployed, liv­ing unhap­pi­ly at home, and stuck in the house all day for want of pub­lic trans­porta­tion? Until more Autis­tic adults have a real­is­tic chance at ful­fill­ing lives, too many will see death as an option.

These are things that I have said before. I am tired of dis­cussing this prob­lem because it seems sol­u­ble, but not enough is done to solve it. This is a mat­ter of life and death, but a sig­nif­i­cant con­tin­gent of autism advo­cates see oth­er pri­or­i­ties as much more urgent. Every dol­lar that goes into cure research isn’t spent on help­ing peo­ple who are alive today stay that way. The idea of a cure is inher­ent­ly part of the prob­lem because it invites Autis­tics to hope for dif­fer­ent selves instead of learn­ing to love the only selves we’re ever like­ly to have. That way lies death. How­ev­er, what­ev­er we want for the future, there is no rea­son we can’t take on today’s per­ils togeth­er. It is dif­fi­cult to see how any­one could con­sid­er it a good use of resources when orga­ni­za­tions almost com­plete­ly neglect peo­ple who are in need today. I won­der how many more peo­ple in my com­mu­ni­ty will die before pri­or­i­ties change and more of the research becomes about things like inde­pen­dent liv­ing sup­ports, qual­i­ty of life, and sui­cide pre­ven­tion. Until we start tack­ing the obvi­ous con­tribut­ing fac­tors and aug­ment com­mon-sense solu­tions with fur­ther research, sui­cide will remain a part of high mor­tal­i­ty rates and ear­ly death in the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty.

It will be dif­fi­cult to address the com­bi­na­tion of health and social issues like­ly at the root of the prob­lem until Autis­tic peo­ple alive today are val­ued enough that more fund­ing is avail­able for pre­serv­ing and enrich­ing our lives. How­ev­er, Autis­tics have nev­er been pas­sive vic­tims. We can’t and won’t tol­er­ate an intol­er­a­ble sta­tus quo until well-inten­tioned oth­ers deign to save us. If we use the tools we have to sup­port each oth­er, there is hope. We can be atten­tive to peo­ple who seem iso­lat­ed and inten­tion­al­ly include them. We can check up on peo­ple who are known to be strug­gling and be vul­ner­a­ble in ways that show them that they’re not alone. We can make our com­mu­ni­ty wel­com­ing to new­com­ers who des­per­ate­ly need the shel­ter of Autis­tic space. We can spread the word about autism-friend­ly men­tal health ser­vices wher­ev­er they exist. We can advo­cate for poli­cies that sup­port inde­pen­dence, like employ­ment first and walk­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties. We can refuse to sup­port dis­abil­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions that put all their resources toward a con­tro­ver­sial, per­haps impos­si­ble, long-term goal while peo­ple in need today suf­fer and die. Con­ver­sa­tions about autism are mov­ing in a pos­i­tive, prac­ti­cal direc­tion. Exter­nal sup­port for our efforts will grow over time, but we can’t afford to wait for it. As more and more exter­nal res­cuers arrive, let’s leave them sur­prised, as usu­al, at how much of the prob­lem we sort­ed out for our­selves.

If you’re in crisis, know that people care about you. Please reach out to anyone and everyone you trust to help you through this. Here are some resources:

National Suicide Hotline
Trans Lifeline

The Trevor Project

Emory Uni­ver­si­ty’s Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion for Stu­dents with Dis­abil­i­ties

How to Help a Sui­ci­dal Autis­tic Per­son