On Friday, April 25 I spoke at the Autism Symposium at Gettysburg Hospital. This event is sponsored by the Healthy Adams County Behavioral Health Task Force and the focus of the symposium is to provide information about autism services and resources that are available for individuals on the autism spectrum. In addition, the symposium also invites parents, caregivers and those who work with autistic individuals to speak and discuss their personal or professional experiences in the autism community. The symposium runs from 10 AM to 4 PM and is held annually on the last Friday in April.
I was only there for the afternoon and I regret not being able to attend the entire day; the presentations, discussions and information I received was extremely valuable. The most insightful presentation and discussion for me was the the topic of “Suicide and Autism Spectrum Disorder” which was presented by Jayne Wildasin of Crisis Intervention Services. The statistics were extremely surprising to me, I was not aware of this issue within the autism community.
During her presentation she stated that “autistic children, contemplating or attempting suicide, are 28 times greater than those of typical children“. Jayne mentioned that with many kids, whether on the autism spectrum on not, children who end up committing suicide usually begin with self-injury behaviors (cutting, scratching until skin bleeds, etc.).
My son, Christian, does not understand the concepts of life and death, however he has hurt himself during severe meltdowns. His self-injury behavior only happens when he is in a violent massive meltdown; his meltdowns usually begin with some sort of property destruction, then he begins to hit and kick me and then he would begin slapping himself on the head. Christian has never made any statements about wanting to hurt himself or take his own life, therefore I am not familiar with this issue. As participants were asking questions, the topic of bullying came up and how children who are severely bullied are at higher risk for attempting suicide.
Three parents at the symposium, whose children are on the autism spectrum, shared their stories about how their children (ages of these children ranged from 9-18) consistently would speak of wanting to end their lives and how some of them actually attempted it. I was extremely heartbroken to hear these stories and realized that this is a topic that needs more attention and discussion. What I also found upsetting was hearing stories of children who were being bullied which triggered some of their children to attempt suicide. What was even worse was hearing how the schools did little to resolve these issues. One of the schools recommended that the child (who was being bullied) change their schedule so that they would have less of a chance of being bullied by other kids. Seriously? How about disciplining the children that are participating in the bullying? Outside of this symposium, I have also talked with other parents of children who have been bullied and who are not diagnosed with a disability. I noticed a lot of similarities in the stories of bullying from various parents with or without special needs children. It seems like the parents of the victim and the victim are made to feel that somehow they brought this on themselves, or that this is just “personal issue” and the parents and students should just address it themselves. It is absolutely disgusting how insensitive and ignorant some of our local schools can be when dealing with the issue of bullying. Always blame the victim, it’s their fault, they are different, they have a disability; that seems to be the attitude of most schools around here. Again, my opinions are strictly based on my conversations and meetings I have had with parents in the local area as well as parents in other states. In addition, Jayne’s presentation made me very aware of this issue and that much more awareness is needed on this topic overall.
After the symposium, my husband and I had a discussion about this issue and realized that just because we are not dealing with this issue at this time, does not mean that we won’t have to deal with this issue as Christian gets older. This could possibly be an issue for Christian as he gets older and that it may benefit us to learn more about this and be aware of this now. I am very grateful for Jayne presenting this topic as well as to the others who were nice enough to share their experiences. Listening to their stories, hearing their pain and frustration in their voices and the emotions they expressed, helped me to understand the magnitude and the importance of this issue.
Parents and caregivers of autistic individuals need more access to resources and services that can provide help and support for this issue. This issue should not be disregarded because the individuals are diagnosed with a disability.
The symposium allowed parents, caregivers and autism service providers to have an open informal discussion about the issues of bullying and suicide within the autism community. In addition to this topic, I also learned about another service, which provides services for adults with autism called Focus Behavioral Health which is located in Frederick Street in Hanover.
Check back at this website for information on next year’s Autism Symposium: http://www.wellspan.org/events/