TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE EXPLICITLY TALKS ABOUT SUICIDE AND MENTAL HEALTH/TRAUMA. While in-depth discussion surrounding these topics is important, it is important to recognize and step back from the discussion if or when it takes a toll on your own emotional wellbeing. Take care when reading this.
September is considered to be ‘National Suicide Prevention Month’ in some places around the world. When discussing mental health and suicide, it is important to include Autistic people in the conversation, as a staggering number of us struggle with severe trauma.
Autistic activist Cal Montgomery once said, “We do not know what Autism truly looks like. We only know what Autism with trauma looks like.”
Trauma is almost universally found within the Autistic community, tragically. The seeds of trauma are planted in childhood, and grows and sprouts as we grow. The trauma often compounds, and by adolescence a number of us have faced some sort of major mental health challenge. Depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress are most common among us. But far more disturbing than that, is the prevalence of suicidal ideation, and subsequent attempts, within our community.
More than half of Autistic people experience suicidal thoughts. The average life expectancy of Autistic people is, tragically, only 38 years old. One of the leading causes of death? You guessed it: suicide.
I first learned what the term suicide meant when I was very young. At first, it seemed like a strange concept: people killing themselves. But over time, I began to, quite disturbingly, understand its’ allure. What started as morbid curiosity eventually devolved into a dark, disturbing feeling that started deep in the back of my head. It then began to evolve into passing thoughts during moments of stress. Things always went wrong. It seemed nobody ever truly cared about or cared to even try and understand me. I was different, and that was bad. I was broken.
By my early teens, the thought of suicide was well within my head, but in some ways the concept itself was like a dark mystery. And as a result, it became something of a special interest of mine. I began to research and learn about suicide, what the people who experienced it went through, the scars it left on their loved ones, what the facts and statistics were around suicide – including the usage of different methods, and which demographics experienced a higher suicide rate.
It would not be until later on that I began to embrace my Autistic identity. But there was a time when I rejected myself, based on the tired belief that people like me were broken human beings, and that I was not worthy the way I was, because I could never be “normal”.
And then I realized: this is the problem. This is what people like me are essentially engineered to believe.
The cycle of masking, of camouflaging our true identities, wishing we were someone we were not – is something quite literally engineered into us, as people attempt to hard-wire us into beings that mask our true selves, that imitate neurotypicals, and never get to explore and grow in our own way – the way we were meant to.
And so: we are alienated. We feel pressured to “fit in”. And when we do not, we begin to question our very worth. The isolation, rejection, bullying, and plain coldness of the world.
The biggest misconception about Autism is the idea that we lack empathy. That we cannot feel. It is also by far, the most harmful. Because if we do not have real feelings, why bother to care about us? Why bother to treat us with kindness? Why bother to even treat us like we are human beings? What is to stop people from abusing us just for the hell of it? I am certain every Autistic has at least one story where they were treated like a zoo animal, used and abused for the entertainment for other people. Our existence being reduced to a laughingstock for neurotypicals to mock day and night. Too many of us have our strengths downplayed and our flaws zeroed in on. Even more of us have our hands slapped away when we actually seek help. And above all, a great number of us are starved of any social or emotional connection.
And humans are social species. Some are introverted. Some are less social than others. But virtually all human beings have a biological and psychological need to establish connections with other people.
The intense world theory posits that Autism is the result of extreme sensitivity to stimuli, and to emotions, which results in a chaotic and intense experience of the world. This is not innately a bad thing. We are afforded just as much good from this as we are bad – such as deep compassion, intense passions, strong senses – and the ability to hyperfocus and hone talents in certain areas – sometimes to a superhuman level. And while it is not easy to understand the thought processes of non-autistic people, we can pick up emotions – sometimes, quite intensely.
The downside? A lot of Autistic people report, or confide that we feel overwhelmed by the state of the world. So much struggle, strife, and pain in life. A world divided by chaos, exploitation, hatred, violence, and grief. And it never ends. For a demographic of people who are often indignant at any injustice, it can be too much to bear.
And when an Autistic person finally dies by their own hand, the question is often asked: How did we get here…. again?
Perhaps the most common contributor to Autistic death is masking. To hide who you are, to suppress your natural state of being – is agonizing. To have to live in constant fear of ridicule, shame, humiliation, and oppression is no way to live. Too many of us come to this conclusion and decide life might not be all it is cut out to be.
When the gold standard “therapy” for Autistic people is designed to alter our very being, and requires people to deny our humanity, it continues to perpetuate this cycle of ignorance and hate. Autistic pain is pathologized, rather than having any attempts made at trying to understand us and make our lives more comfortable.
In fact, the very pathologization of being Autistic – of seeing our way of being as a disorder to be ‘cured’ away or prevented through eugenics – sends Autistic children, teens and adults a message: that our existence is ultimately unwanted and undesirable.
And the natural consequence is the general social treatment: bullying and abuse of almost every kind. Emotional neglect. Systemic oppression and violence, which is exponentially compounded if the Autistic also belongs to additional marginalized communities.
People who do not want to befriend us, or who easily abandon us. Being discriminated at against every walk of life.
This can sound very bleak. But here’s the thing: it does not have to be this way.
It does not have to be this way.
It does not have to be this way.
We can create a better world. We can create a world that people want to be in.
I have seen a post with a particular theme going around lately this month. The gist is, that we have reduced suicide prevention month to “check on your friends”, when we should also be advocating for expanded healthcare and social services, proper mental health services, defunding the police, and more. But this stance is missing much-needed nuance.
What is to be done when the services you receive themselves are the problem? When the very system we live in treats us as burdens, and, failing to “fix” what isn’t broken, lock us up in institutions? And what kind of solution is it when we just slap a band-aid and expect everyone to get better?
Blaming suicide solely on ‘mental illness’ is a copout. Mental health is important. Wellness is important. But to treat wellness as something no more than a mere abstract concept divorced from the rigors of daily life, is nothing more than capitalist brainwashing.
In most cases, it takes a lot more than simply a “chemical imbalance” to cause suicide – especially suicide rates as high as what Autistics experience. Whether to absolve social responsibility, or just to preserve the status quo, a lot of people take tremendous leaps to avoid this simple truth:
Suicide is caused by cruelty, violence, apathy, and oppression. In no particular order.
The expansion of services and support to help neurodivergent people is crucial. This can include healthier forms of therapy and mental health support, accessibility accommodations, equal access to healthcare, education, and more. A fundamental expansion and meeting of human rights, legal and social protections, and more.
But beyond that: Kindness. Empathy. Compassion. Understanding. In addition to advocating for better social services, do check on your friends. Support them, and love them. Do the best you can. Have faith when situations are tough.
And then, work to erase the social conditions that allow Autistics to suffer. Work to promote inclusion, neurodiversity, and acceptance. Dismantle the pathology paradigm, ableism, and the system that allows these to fester – capitalism. Empower the Autistic people in your lives. Include us. Listen to us. Make friends with us, and get to know us better – some of us are pretty cool.
Work to create a world that Autistic people, and people in general, want to be in.
Then, and only then, will you prevent suicides.