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Autism, Depression and Suicide

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image courtesy of

Today I read a very moving post on, a blog that helps raise
awareness about Asperger’s and females. The entire article really opened my eyes to my 17 year old daughter’s mental and emotional struggles as she tries to make her way in this world, yet feels the need to apologize every day for simply existing.

I was always bewildered by her low self-esteem, as I raised her with abundant compliments, unconditional love and unlimited support. I made it known to her that her voice and opinions MATTER and are validated.

Being raised in a very abusive and dysfunctional family setting myself, it makes sense to me why I struggled to overcome worthiness issues for so many years. But my beautiful, brilliant, quirky and ridiculously talented little girl faces similar obstacles, and after reading this I understand a little bit more about Asperger’s and the female brain.

Here are a few of the highlights that really stood out to me:

    The times I need to curl in a corner and cry with the imaginary arms of someone around me, and then sobbing uncontrollably, as I realize like all the times before, there is no one there.

The truth of my isolation and how no one will ever be able to slip into my mind and understand.

Counting the minutes until I can sleep, hoping the sleep will help me escape the increasing thoughts of fear.

Realizing again and again I am different in a world that seems riddled with sameness. Understanding that the depths of me are so deep that even I get lost with no hope of escape.

Feeling like an alien. Feeling like an alien. Feeling like an alien.

The way in which I step back as observer and watch myself freak out and wig out and create chaos out of nothing, but still being unable to stop myself.

Thinking anything I say isn’t needed, is irrelevant, or will just bury me and leave me alone.

You can read her whole post here.

This prompted me to do some additional research on Asperger’s and suicide.

On the Spectrum News website I learned of a published study from The Lancet Psychiatry, revealing that two-thirds of a group of adults diagnosed with Asperger syndrome said they had thought about committing suicide at some point, and 35 percent had made specific plans or actually made an attempt.

35 percent!

For those with Asperger’s, struggling their whole lives to fit in can take a toll on them emotionally. Add to that autistic cognitive patterns such as the tendency to perseverate or get stuck on a particular line of thought and it can directly lead to vulnerability toward suicide.

What makes an Aspie teen a higher risk? says the number one reason is social isolation and rejection. Aspies tend to have decent friendships in elementary school, but there is sudden shift in middle school.

Peers start noticing differences in behaviors; friends from elementary school suddenly distance themselves, which can be confusing (and terrifying) for the Aspie, who wonders why these people were friends in 5th grade but not in 6th.

Adolescence is a time students are seeking identity and peer approval. But odd mannerisms, avoiding eye contact, lack of filters for appropriate conversation, not understanding sarcasm or idioms, and constant interruption are just some of the things that cause an Aspie to be shunned or bullied as a teen. Increasingly harder schoolwork and being left out of group projects or teams can trigger anxiety and depression.

Tony Attwood, a clinical psychologist known world wide for his knowledge of Aspergers Syndrome, speaks about the Aspie tendency to catastrophize, making it challenging to regulate their emotions. Additionally, the amygdala of an Aspie tends to be 10-15 % larger than in neurotypicals, therefore inflating the “danger alerts” in the fight/flight/freeze system.

This means something that is a 1 on the scale of a neurotypical person may easily register as a 10 to an Aspie. As the brain sends signals that start the sympathetic nervous system racing, the person with Asperger’s may be the “last to know” about their heightened emotional state, making them just as surprised as an observer when emotions and behaviors have escalated.

How Can We Help?

The goal for crisis intervention is to increase the person’s sense of being emotionally supported as well as their psychological sense of possible choices.

Autism Help lists some the following strategies:

    Establish rapport (e.g. ‘I’m listening and I want to support you’)

Explore the person’s perception of the crisis

Focus on the immediate past (e.g. a recent significant event or problem) and immediate future

Develop options and a plan of action

Increase the options available to the person and the number of people available to help

Try to involve appropriate people in the person’s natural support system

Encourage them to develop a plan including resources and support in the immediate future. Write down the steps of a personal safety plan and suggest the person carry them around for fast access to support.

Much like the Disaster Psychology module taught in CERT, you want to avoid certain phrases when communicating, such as, “Everything will be fine, don’t worry,” and “Come on, it isn’t that bad…” False reassurances, minimizing feelings, and intrusive questioning are inappropriate responses for individuals at risk for depression and suicide.

Instead, practice active and reflective listening techniques when the person shares their feelings with you and paraphrase and summarize often.


SOA Wake Up Call

A Bad Dream or a Wake Up Call?

SOA Wake Up CallI had a nice article lined up for you today about Minecraft and life skills, but something happened to me this morning that I felt HAD to share with you. It’s a very personal experience and I’m really baring it all… I hope you don’t mind.

I awakened at 3 am, which has been happening for nearly three weeks for some reason. I performed my newly created middle-of-the-night rituals: glass of water, briefly let the dogs out, interacted with my teens (who are still up at that hour!), and became wrapped up in an episode of Law and Order SVU, which always seems to be airing on one of the crime channels in my cable rotation.

Trying to fall asleep to a crime drama is another story, so when panic set in about how much slumber I could squeeze in before my 5 am alarm I switched to the “Soundscapes” music channel and tried desperately to quiet my mind.

During that time I had an experience that rocked my very core.

I was fading in and out of sleep – you know that place where you’re dreaming but still aware of sounds and activity in your environment? That sort of sleep “purgatory”, if you will.

In the first part of the short dream, someone was outside our living room window, mowing our lawn, and the dogs were alert and circling like they do when a stranger is near our property. I remember thinking that my landlord had just mowed (which was true), so who was this person mowing my yard for a second time this week? Especially in December?

At this point, I could feel myself hyperventilating a bit in real life, sort of like when you’re dreaming that someone’s chasing you and you wake up out of breath – your body believes your dreams are real and tends to respond accordingly.

The next segment of the dream paralleled real life: I was lying in my bed trying to get back to sleep before my alarm went off. I was relaxing and drifting… then a wave of paralysis washed over me and I was sinking fast into darkness.

I liken this feeling to a time when I was hospitalized for a bad reaction to a diet pill and was given morphine in my IV to calm my racing heart. I felt the same paralysis wash over me and I couldn’t STAND it. I felt like I had no control of my body and was slipping away fast. How do people get addicted to that stuff, anyway? Who would want to feel so out of control voluntarily?

In the dream I was now falling fast into unconsciousness and I knew deep inside that if I gave in to it I would transition to the non-physical world. I tried to yell, “NO!” and violently shake myself out of it, but no words came. My head was made of cement and my eyelids were unbearably heavy.

I looked at the wall and saw a symbol of a dove SOA dove symbolappear (similar the kind you see in a Catholic church). I knew this meant death was here to collect me. “NO! Wake up NOW! I want to live!” I desperately tried to reason with my body.

More drifting. Panic. Fear. Fighting to keep my spirit anchored in my physical form… I could feel it stretching and rising and I was not ready. I AM NOT READY. I have so much work to do here. My children would go to into foster care. My dogs would get sent to a kill shelter. No. NO!

I managed to open my eyes and on the wall again briefly appeared a light blue poster that revealed a funny stick person and seven words: Appreciate Life One Day at a Time.

I yelled, “I will. I WILL!” My voice was back. And my alarm was going off.

I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge waking up to reclaim his life on Christmas. Not quite as joyful (yet!), but definitely resigned to looking at the choices I’ve made: the ones that are making me stressed, angry, and feeling hopeless these days.

“But this is an Autism Blog… how does this help me with my child?”

I learn from my beautiful boy every day. Perhaps two of the biggest lessons I keeping forgetting are these:

He lives in the NOW

He is wired for his own happiness

Due to my myriad freelance jobs we don’t currently have days off or vacation time, but he is happy. He Skypes with children all over the world. He sings, hums and laughs all day long. When he feels a surge of energy he gets up and runs around. When he feels mellow he shuts down his computer and draws. When he wants connection he hugs me and tells me he loves me. When he is hungry, he eats.

He does not compare himself to other children or worry about what people think of him. If someone is mistreating him, he simply chooses not to be around them. He doesn’t have a committee in his head that debates and struggles between letting someone down, putting himself last and building resentment because of it, and getting his needs met. He seeks pleasure and avoids pain. He is true to his gifts and strengths and accepts his shortcomings but doesn’t give up on improving them.

Was this experience this morning a wake up call for me to start living in the now? Stop putting myself last? Stop feeling so damned depressed (the holidays are the hardest for me every year)? Get more serious about my training work in the Autism community so I can be more fulfilled and present for my children? Make room for and attract friends and a support network?

What do you think? Was it real or just a dream? Either way, there was a message in it. Have you had any experience like this? I’d love to hear your thoughts or personal stories! Share by commenting below, on the SOA Facebook page, or by privately dropping me a line.