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Asperger's Syndrome

The Pain of Isolation: Asperger’s and Suicide

Why would a person with Asperger’s feel driven to suicide?

A few years ago, there was an article published about raising a child with Asperger's entitled, "My 10-Year-Old Wanted to Die." I wasn't a fan of the article, which was tinged with a tone of pity/sensationalism that seems endemic to much media coverage of autism, but the title caught my attention. Although it was clearly chosen for shock value (and has since been changed), I found it didn't shock me at all. In fact, it struck a nerve – you see, had my first major brush with suicide when I was 13.

Lately, it seems a perfect storm of events, public and private, have brought memories of this event back with particular force – media coverage on suicide has spiked in response to the recent cluster of suicides by gay teens, a phone call advised of a friend's profound loss, a Facebook note arrived in my e-mail, advising of the suicide of a fellow member of an Asperger's group – it just goes on. Under the circumstances, I find it difficult not to speak about it.

When I Googled the terms "suicide" and "Asperger's" I was surprised at how frequently the subject seemed to be treated with confusion – why would a person with Asperger's feel driven to suicide? To me, the answer to this is obvious. The need to bond with others is a basic human need. The very definition of Asperger's is to have trouble fulfilling that need. So why is it surprising that someone with these difficulties might fall into despair?

Isolation is a hallmark of the lives of many on the spectrum, and isolation can be painful. To assume that those on the spectrum who are alone, do not feel the pain of that aloneness is a dangerous assumption that further isolates. For me, isolation and loneliness were the most painful parts of growing up on the spectrum, and I didn't have it as badly as some. I was given extra help and support many others didn't get. Because of that, I had more early successes. However, the early strides I had made were badly derailed by bullying.

All the confidence I had built prior was decimated and I withdrew into myself even further than I had before. I was desperately lonely, but I didn't trust my own abilities. My previous experiences had convinced me that my barometer was "off." I couldn't tell a friend from an enemy who meant me harm. I feared the pain of betrayal, so I avoided others.

The tide began to change when my father decided to remarry. My stepmother's family was deeply embedded in their church community, and my stepmother set about incorporating me into it as well. She enrolled me in their summer bible school.

During the first activity of the day another girl struck up a conversation with me, and we talked through the entire activity. As we neared the end, I was sure that I wanted to be her friend but I had no idea how to go about it. As anxiety paralyzed me, I saw another social opportunity passing me by.

But then she looked up at me, and said, "Can we be friends?" Relieved, I accepted eagerly. No one had ever been that direct with me before, and I took it as a good sign. When others took my reticence as standoffishness, she seemed to see through it, and meet me where I was. We became best friends. I was happy. Finally, I felt part of a community again.

We remained close until a few years later when things began to change. At first, I didn't realize it – I didn't sense the distance forming between us. But then, a new girl started at our school, and things took an abrupt change for the worse. After school, I'd go looking for my friend, and she'd be nowhere to be found.

When I would finally start for home, alone and confused, I'd see my friend and this new girl walking together blocks ahead of me, giggling, and peeking over their shoulders at me as I morosely walked behind. I was lost, and I didn't know what to do – should I try to catch up to them? Go out of my way to dodge them?

One day, as they walked home on the opposite side of the street, they stopped and called to me. Were they going to invite me to join them? The new girl came loping across the street. When she reached my side of the road, she shoved something at me, "Here." It was one of the pair of "friendship necklaces" that my friend and I had traded. As I stared down at it, the new girl bluntly continued, "We don't want you around anymore."

Stunned, I could feel the tears beginning to form...I didn't want either girl to see me cry, so I turned and ran. I barely made it inside my house before I fell apart. I wept. I screamed. I raged. Overwhelmed by my emotions, I didn't see the next problem coming until it was too late.

Stress and extremes of emotion have always amplified my sensory sensitivities – especially my auditory ones. This became problematic when my stepbrother's dog came running, alarmed by my outbursts. A medium-sized dog, he had a loud bark that was an assault to the ears under the best of circumstances. In my hyper-aroused state, each bark now felt like a kick to the head.

Rearing back, I slapped my hands over my ears and screamed at him to stop, but this just upset him further. He advanced on me and barked louder. Seeing his advance and my distress triggered my own dog's protective instincts – although less than half his size, she charged at him, and began barking right back, standing on her hind legs to look him in the eye.

Now he was barking at me and her, even more frantically. I screamed at him again to stop. He didn't. If possible, he seemed to bark louder. Overwhelmed and fighting to handle the onslaught of stimulation, I was desperate to somehow make it stop.

That's when I kicked him.

His surprised yelp hit me like a bucket of ice water to the face. What had I done? I dropped to my knees. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry!" I exclaimed, calling him to me. "Please, come here..." I wept as I crawled after him, catching up to him in the dining room. Nervous and confused, he looked at me from the corner of his eye and shied away.

Finally, I was able to soothe him enough to get him near. I wrapped my arms around his neck, and tearfully apologized again, while I patted him down, feeling for injuries. Convinced he was more confused than hurt, I let him go, and watched him skitter away. Wrung out, I sat staring blindly at the dining room wall, reviewing the rejections I'd experienced throughout the years, in light of my recent behavior.

"Maybe they're right..." I thought. "Maybe they're right to reject me. After all, what kind of a person am I? To strike out at a helpless animal like that... He didn't understand!" Overwhelmed with fury and self-hatred, I ran into the bathroom, and threw open the medicine cabinet, surveying the contents. What would do it? What would make me die?

I was disappointed to find that my parents stocked nothing stronger than cold medicine. Shutting the door, I stared at my tear-stained face in the mirror and thought about my options. What was I going to do? Slit my wrists?

My conscience wouldn't let me create that kind of mess for someone else to clean up. The logical side of my mind weighed in, asking the question, "What happens if you fail? What if you just manage to hurt or disfigure yourself? Then, you'll have to deal with all that you do now, plus that, too." This took the wind out of my sails...I certainly didn't want to make things worse. So, I resigned myself to moving on.

I felt utterly alone – with my friend's defection, I had nowhere else to turn. I didn't understand why it was such an effort for me to connect with people, or why things went wrong so often. I didn't understand why I reacted so strongly to certain stimuli or why the reactions were stronger at some times than others. I assumed that everyone felt things with the same intensity. If they did, what did they have that I didn't, that they could stay "in control" when I couldn't? What was wrong with my character?

I was ashamed and afraid to share this incident with anyone, especially my parents. They would worry, and maybe they'd think the same horrible things that I was thinking about myself. So, I locked the incident away for years.

The underlying feelings continued to fester and would bubble to the surface when things would go badly. They still do from time to time. But the fact is, my feelings about myself have changed in the years since I learned about Asperger's.

I learned that it wasn't a weakness of will that caused the difficulties – it was that I experienced the world profoundly differently. I was given different raw materials to work with, and I could learn to adapt. If I had succeeded that overcast afternoon, I shudder to think of the experiences I would have missed. Pain passes, new opportunities present themselves. Things change.

It got better.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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