SPRING HILL — When a child goes missing, everyone feels it. When a child is bullied by a teacher or caregiver or peer, everyone feels it.
But if that child lives under the heavy burden of an autism diagnosis, the autism community doesn’t just feel it. They get angry.
Crystal Rhine, a Spring Hill resident and mother of four, knows the challenges of autism first hand. Her son, Jacob, 13, was diagnosed with high functioning autism at age 4. And she has fought every battle with determination and grit.
But Rhine had to face the unchartered waters of suicide when a family member, also with an autism spectrum disorder, took his own life.
“I never saw this coming,” Rhine said, through clenched teeth. And she’s very angry.
Death by suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 in the general population. But studies show an increase by at least 50 percent in those diagnosed with an ASD.
According to an article published in Spectrumnews.org in 2014 and written by Sarah Deweerdt, those with an autism spectrum disorder may have more suicidal thoughts than we realize or are prepared, as a society, to address.
“Experienced clinicians have long had a sense that people with autism are at increased risk of ‘suicidality’, which encompasses thoughts, plans, and attempts to kill oneself. Several large studies of adolescence and adults with autism reveal that bleak moods and suicidal despair are alarmingly common, particularly those on the milder end of the spectrum with so-called high functioning autism.”
Yet recognizing the risk isn’t easy for clinicians, who are trained to look for specific identifying properties that are typical in the general populations of patients. Those with an ASD may not openly discuss emotions. “They may report feeling suicidal without describing themselves as depressed”, the article explains.
In a study published in the British journal, Lancet Psychiatry found that two-thirds of a group of high functioning autistic adults said they had thoughts of suicide at some point and 35 percent had made specific plans or attempted suicide.
“Some of the cognitive patterns seen in people with autism, such as the tendency to perseverate or get stuck on a particular line of thought, may make these individuals particularly vulnerable to suicidality.” Researchers are now looking for ways to identify suicide risk within the autism population so it can be addressed and eventually prevented.
Other studies find that adults with an ASD are dying some 12 to 30 years earlier than might be expected. The leading cause of premature death in adults with autism isn’t heart disease or cancer, but suicide. And the age of death appears to be impacted by cognitive ability.
For 13 years, Rhine has advocated for her son. Like most parents who battle through life with autism, she has experienced deep moments of isolation, frustration and feelings of helplessness from a society not quite comfortable with the realities of autism. And she wears her battle scars proudly.
But the floor was pulled out from under her and she now struggles to regain her footing. “It’s just another thing we have to worry about,” she said.
It became frighteningly clear to her that the dialog about feelings of hopelessness and despair in children and young adults with an ASD must be addressed like every other challenge families face. And the community must be prepared to listen.
A simple yet powerful solution was discussed in an article appearing in Psychology Today in 2013. The author, Lynne Soraya, who writes about autism-related matters, referenced factors that might lead to a sense of hopelessness and despair among those living with an ASD.
“What can we do to prevent this from happening? It comes down to acceptance, diversity, and inclusion. Where a society is inclusive, isolation is minimized. People can feel accepted and supported. Can we, as a society, learn to honor difference, instead of treating it with disdain?”
For support, the following resources are available: Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255; or Crisis Text Line, text HELLO to 741741.
For more information on mental illness and suicide prevention resources in Hernando County, visit hernandocares.org.