September 10th is the beginning of World Suicide Prevention Week. This September 10th, just barely a year ago, a 15-year-old relative committed suicide leaving all of us reeling in pain and confusion. How did this happen? There were no outward signs of depression, always a warm smile on his face and a loving word from him. When I posted on the last blog about bullying I started to think about all the feelings that come with it that I had felt growing up, feelings that children with Autism have and understand all too well as they start to get into their teens. Having a diagnosis of Autism, unfortunately, does not make someone exempt from depression. Quite the opposite as new studies are finding that people with Autism are more likely to have these feelings than their neurotypical peers.
A study published by Sarah Cassidy in 2014 (from the Coventry Universities Center for Research in Psychology, Behavior, and Achievement) found that, out of the 365 newly diagnosed adults with Aspergers Syndrome, 66% of them had contemplated suicide. Out of that number, 35% said they had planned and/or attempted suicide. (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/autisms-high-suicide-rate-spurs-expert-summit/). Another study found, “People on the spectrum have a mortality rate almost two decades less than those without an autism diagnosis. As noted by the Karolinska Institute when they published in the “British Journal of Psychiatry,” the leading cause of premature death in autistic adults isn’t due to things like heart disease or cancer; it’s suicide.” (https://themighty.com/2016/09/ suicide-and-autism-help-lower-the-suicide-rate-of-autistic-adults/).
So why are the numbers so high? Well, one answer is that the characteristics of people with Autism make it more challenging for healthcare professionals to screen for depression. Putting feelings into words is incredibly difficult for people with Autism. To sift through all the emotions going on in their body means they have to be able to have this underlying skill, to begin with. From then they have to be able to tell someone how they are feeling, another skill that is elusive to most. Since these skills need to be taught beforehand so that, when the emotions are at their most intense, the person has the foundations to work through it. It is never a good idea to teach these skills in the middle of a meltdown, it will just produce frustration for you and the person you are trying to help.
Some strategies that can be used today, and I would recommend them being used consistently and routinely, is a “check-in” with the person's body. You can verbally scan the person's body and ask questions like, “How does your head feel today?” It’s helpful to have a list of words next to them for them to scan and pick. This is something they can do in their downtime as well since facial expressions are so challenging to read they can go around the room and document how they feel that everyone is feeling. Then come together as a group and check that they were correct and each person simulating their expression and stating how they were feeling. This will also provide familiarity to each individual's expressions for the future.
Another strategy is for you to do your homework and become educated on why this is becoming such a big issue in the Autism community. As a whole, we need to see what the underlying issue is and help to provide support to that weak link. Is it because they needed to be taught more social skills growing up? Do they have “safe” people to talk to and who understand their language? Having these people at home and at school is only going to be more effective, especially since they are familiar with the person's language and skill set around communication. If they are finding it difficult to explain how they are feeling then give them a range of words to pick through to see if one or two fits.
By finding out what each child needs before they get to the point where they feel it’s impossible to turn back is our main objective. If we can figure out how to remedy what could potentially be a problem beforehand and give them the skills then we will hopefully see more adults with Autism thriving in our communities.
Thank you for reading and I hope you have a wonderful week! Shine On!