Last week on the campus where I teach a young woman took her own life. She was 18.
I didn’t know her and yet, was profoundly affected. Profoundly.
That afternoon I went home and found both of my children in the kitchen. Tucker was bringing a pizza over to the table as Estelle was reaching for two plates. They, albeit knowingly, set the environment to have a very serious discussion.
I told them about Katie. I told them what happened. I cried. Tucker asked if I knew her. I told him I did not, but that didn’t stop the hurt.
I told them that she was just too young – she had a life full of promise just waiting.
I told them that she was someone’s daughter – like you, Estelle.
I told them that she was someone’s sister – like your sister, Tucker.
I told them that she was someone’s friend and cousin, granddaughter and confidant.
Her life mattered to me – whether I knew her or not.
They also started to cry. I’m not sure if they were feeling sad for Katie and her friends and family or whether my tears simply triggered theirs. It didn’t matter. Here is what I said to them…
“No matter what you do in life, nothing can separate my love from you. Nothing. Fail a class? No way. Flunk a test? Nope. Cheat on something? Nada. Nothing. Nothing will stop me from loving you. There is nothing in this world that you cannot tell me. Nothing that you can do will make my love for you lesser than the day before.”
I’m sure Katie’s mom told her the same thing.
Then I made them look me in the eye and promise me that they would never make that choice. While I know nothing in life is certain – maybe, just maybe, if they are ever in that moment they will remember our moment. The moment that I made them look at me. The moment I made them say the words. That moment…it may save their life.
It was a somber evening and I found myself in intermittent tears.
When I put them to bed that evening, I cried so hard I could barely talk. I just was feeling so much pain.
On Day #241 – Flowering Self-Esteem I shared the struggles that Tucker has had with self-esteem. At the tender age of five he would say things like…
“I should just die. You would be better off.”
“I should just kill myself. Life would be better.”
“I can’t do it. I wish I was dead.”
It wasn’t once – it was over and over. Storch (2013) found that, ‘youth with ASD may make suicidal statements when they are emotionally overwhelmed and incapable of applying more effective functional communication, emotional regulation, and general coping skills to manage their distress.” That may be – but as a parent – any comment like that is real…and every moment that contained these thoughts/messages was simply heartbreaking.
While I haven’t heard any of these comments for two years, I know they reside deep within him. After I tucked them in that night I lost my breath. I literally couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t walk back up the stairs. Instead, I sat with my head in my hands…quietly weeping, silently praying. Why?
I know about this reality…and have chose (until now) not to write about it. It’s real though – so, I must. What does Katie’s death have to do with autism? Everything.
- Mayes (2012) found that suicide ideation or attempts were rated as ‘sometimes to very often a problem’ by mothers 28 times greater than for neurotypical children. She also found that ‘the frequency of suicide ideation or attempts in children with autism was twice as common in males than females’ and that children ’10 years of age and older had three times the frequency of suicide ideation or attempts than younger children.’
- Raja (2011) found that 46% of adult patients with ASD exhibited suicidal behavior.
- Mikami (2009) found that 13% of adolescents who were hospitalized for a suicide attempt met the criteria for an ASD diagnosis. Among those 13%, 42% had a past history of attempted suicide.
- Shtayermann (2007) reported that 50% of adolescents and young adults with Asperger’s disorder exhibited suicidal ideation. (Caveat…this was a very small sample)
Katie had suffered from depression for quite some time. Children with autism are known to have high levels of depression and anxiety. Often times depression follows difficulty with social interaction, bullying, and victimization.
- Mayes (2012) found that in a sample of 350 children (with ASD), mothers reported depressed moods in 54% of children with high functioning autism (not my word…but important to know) and 42% with low functioning autism (again…not my word…but important to know).
- Matson (2014) conducted a study and found that greater rates of anxiety and depression are found in ASD children as compared to their neurotypical peers.
- Strong (2012) also found that 54% of children and adolescents with an ASD were also categorized as borderline or clinically depressed, while 56% met the criteria for an anxiety disorder.
Does it pay to work in a University and constantly read new research about ASD? Yes…and no. This research has helped me to understand Tucker and help him in so many ways….but it also brings all of the realities to the front.
So, why couldn’t I breathe? It happened less than two blocks from where I work – to a young woman who seemed to have everything going for her. Her friends described her as beautiful, talented, with a smile that could light up a room. She was far from alone (at least from our perception), was quite popular, and had a bright future. To truly recognize that someone with ‘all of that going for them’ can be in such a dark place is haunting…it’s all too real. Especially when I recognize the heightened risk in my own home.
So I’ve been checking on him during the night while letting tears roll down my face as I pray, and hope, and pray, and hope – because I think I’ve done all I can do.
However, in typical Tucker fashion he brings me out of that very scary place.
On Monday night, while talking about the blood moon (and how it appeared to look like the world was ending) he declared, “Mom, I know you’ve been thinking a lot about that girl at your school. I really am sorry that happened. I need you to know that the only time I would take my life is if there was a Zombie Apocalypse and I was the only one left, because there really wouldn’t be a point. I certainly don’t want a zombie eating me bite by bite.”
So, there’s that….sunshine after the rain.
Mayes, S., Gorman, A., Hillwig-Garcia, J. & Syed, E. (2013). Suicide ideation and attempts in children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 7, 109-119.
Matson, J. & Williams, L. (2014). Depression and mood disorders among persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Research in Developmental Disabilities. 35. 2003-2007.
Mikami, K., Inomata, S., Hayakawa, N., Ohnishi, Y., Enseki, Y., Ohya, A., et al. (2009) Frequency and clinical features of pervasive developmental disorder in adolescent suicide attempts. General Hospital Psychiatry, 31, 163-166.
Raja, M. Azzoni, A., & Frustaci A. (2011). Autism spectrum disorder and suicidality. Clinical Practice, Epidemiology and Mental Health, 30 97-105.
Shtayermman, O. (2007). Peer victimization in adolescents and young adults diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome: A link to depressive symptomatology, anxiety symptomatology and suicidal ideation. Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 30, 87-107.
Storch, E., Sulkowski, M., Nadeua, J., Lewin, A., Arnold, E., Mutch, P., et al (2013). The phenomenenology and clinical correlates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Autism Developmental Disorders, 43, 2450-2459.
Strong, J.F., Kenworthy, L, Danilos, P., Case, L, Wills, M.C. Martin, A., et al (2012). Depression and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder without intellectual disability. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorder, 691), 406-412.