Psychiatry defined us, but is failing us.
I was reminded this past week about the reason we have psychiatry as a discipline that takes up a lot of resources. A lot of that apparatus, beyond just the human curiosity to understand how things work, is to prevent suicide. All the trappings of psychiatry really boil down to this question: why do some people find life too much, too difficult, and so take a very permanent exit ramp?
Obviously we don’t have all the answers, and suicide is still a very prominent issue in society. Those in awareness raising communities discuss the rates of suicide in their groups. Most prominently, celebrities and influencers publicly discuss the terrible rates for LGBTQ+ youth. The group I almost never hear mentioned is the autistic community.
Autism is the word we use to describe the neurotype of between 1- 2.38% of the population, and suicide is the second most common reason for early death. Because autistic people are deemed “different”, they often find it rather hard to fit-in, feel connected, and find a meaningful and pain-free life. Finding those elements in life can be hard no matter who you are, but autism makes it even harder. Here are four reasons why autism often leads to a difficult life trying to make it in a world not created for us.
Sensory Issues and Reactivity Reasons
- Sensory sensitivity makes socializing and doing things with others more difficult. Autistic people seem melodramatic because they can’t handle the sounds/light/smells of an experience. It’s not because they are “spoiled” or “too demanding”, but rather because their brain registers sensory input differently than yours does. That sound actually hurts.
- Meltdowns and Shutdowns are often interpreted by others as tantrums and or being “too reserved/cold”. Neurodivergent Rebel has an informative vlog (see link below) about it. Either way, the interpretation does not match reality, but it can have severe implications for an autistic person’s ability to socialize and feel connected.
- Double empathy is a real thing. Studies have shown that neurodivergent people understand and communicate very well with other neurodivergent people, just as neurotypical people do well within their own type. Since autistic people are only a little over 2% of the population, finding a community of fellow info-dumpers can be a challenge.
- We judge by Use-Value. Autistic people usually are quite developed in one part of their life, and will spend untold hours on a special interest. They bring joy and creativity to a lot of their endeavors. In our society, though, we judge others and ourselves based on our “use-value” – i.e. how useful we are at making money and being an earner. Most autistic people are driven by other needs, and so they are often declared of less value. Once that’s internalized, it can easily drive an autistic to suicide.
Suicide Rates are 13 times higher for autistic women
Combine these things, then take into consideration that autism often comes with a lot of co-morbidities (i.e. other things that are different/wrong) like muscle or reflex issues, auditory processing disorders, mutism, epilepsy, dyslexia and its friends, etc. All of these limit a person’s ability to be connected and feel like life is worth living. So it is no wonder that suicide rates for autistic people are exceptionally high.
Depending on the study, rates of suicide in the autistic community are 3-6 times higher than in the regular population. That is a lot of variation, and the reason for the difference has a lot to do with diagnostic criteria and who decides whether someone “counts” as autistic. That is another argument that I partially discuss here, but it’s a huge issue that requires much more nuance. One study reported on by The Conversation found rates in autistic women to be 13 TIMES greater than in the general population. We pour money into many things, but for some reason, we act as if this massive population is expendable.
I’m not sure I have any answers, but allowing autistic people to have their joy and contribute to the diverse range of human experience seems like a good first step. Instead of side-lining autistic people, work toward understanding and connection. Why? Because autistic people have tremendous assets and strengths; they just get lost in the hurly-burly of NT social practices.