Everybody Is Identical: a response to An Open Letter to the Depressed Aspergian
Trigger Warning: This article discusses depression and suicide at length. Do not read it if you are easily triggered by such subjects. Do not let your children read this if they are too young.
A friend of mine jumped off her roof last week. Her name was Zara. She was a painter. She wasn’t autistic, but she struggled with isolation, and finding friends wasn’t easy for her. That was one of the things we connected over.
In times like these, I think back to a quote by D.T. Max, the biographer of David Foster Wallace. Wallace was one of my favorite writers. Among other things, he wrote eloquently about his own sadness. David committed suicide in 2008. In his memorializing article, The Unfinished, Max writes “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the ending he chose.”
The other thing that has been stuck in my mind this past week is Stephen Reynolds’s article, published here last month, An Open Letter to the Depressed Aspergian. Reynolds covers a lot of important points, and addresses the very important topic of depression, its universality, its encompassing nature, its invisibility, with respect. He touches on depression and masculinity, and the article as a whole touches on depression in the autism community, saying encouragingly, “I implore all of you, any of you who know someone who suffers from depression -especially if they have autism- to sit them down and listen. Do not belittle them, do not doubt what thoughts could be swimming through their heads and treat them like adults.” The article gives many uplifting words, but there is a lot left to say on the topic of autism and depression.
Depression is incredibly common in the autism community. Children with autism are 28 times as likely to attempt suicide as neurotypical children. In adults with Asperger’s, a study found a majority of individuals were depressed, and two thirds of participants were having thoughts of suicide. These numbers are unprecedented, and uncalled for. They speak to a larger issue on autism, how it is treated in society, and how we think of autistic individuals.
Much of the articles published on this subject are strictly medical, on (to be fair, well circulated) sites like Psychology Today and Science Daily. These horrifying numbers are buried in complicated jargon that discusses autistic people in terms of symptoms, numbers, observations. They talk about the inflated amygdala and exaggerated fight or flight responses, they use terminology for depression such as “overlapping symptoms” and phrases that minimize the emotional heft of the issue, like “mood disorders.” Whether or not it’s intentional, the medical language used dehumanizes autistic people, and talks about their traits in terminology better suited for computer glitches, or animals.
Despite knowing the support autistic people need, most autistic support groups are for families of autistic children. That’s not to say families don’t need support too, 80 percent of married couples with autistic children get divorced. Still, support and aid for autistic adults and supportive communities for autistic people of any age, outside of this community, are incredibly rare. Finding physical communities for autistic folks is a huge challenge, and it shouldn’t be for a group of people often defined by their hunger for human connection.
Why these support structures are so rare is lost on me. The nature of autism easily brings out depression. Saying that it is a merely symptom the disorder is tantamount to calling a symptom of cancer death. Human beings are social creatures. We need each other for emotional support, and having a connection with another person breathes meaning into one’s life. But the odd nature of the autistic personality can sometimes push people away. Isolation begins at a young age. Autistic children are bullied more often than neurotypical children, and become increasingly lonely the older they get. This sort of negative social feedback breeds the anxiety around social issues that many of us feel, and it creates a feedback loop. It doesn’t help that autistic people are more easily traumatized by negative feedback, due to the aforementioned inflated amygdala. This sort of solitude, the way it feels to struggle to find a true human connection, it can shake you to your core. It can make you feel worthless. Why else would nobody be interested in being around you? They must be right about you.
But it’s not autistic people’s fault the world is like this. If you look right below the surface, you can see the methods society uses to maintain the status quo on social rules. This sort of negative feedback is a method for creating a cohesive language, which is central to a functioning social organism, but not only does it weed out social diversity, it doesn’t accommodate those who don’t learn socially as easily as everyone else.
In these medical papers, as well as in communities around America, we downplay the way depression impacts the lives of autistic people. It is often suggested bullying is less hurtful to those on the spectrum, because they would not care about being left out. It’s the same hurtful stereotype all over again; autistic people don’t want human relationships. The other suggestion is that the way we are made predisposes us to suicide. That it’s not society that pushed us out, we are instead “neurological time bombs.”
Not only are both arguments ignorant, they breed the problem they are addressing. In my experience, autistic people aren’t that different from everyone else, but the exclusiveness that the world feeds us brings out the differences, and makes them harder to overcome. David Foster Wallace wrote many truisms in his book Infinite Jest. One of these is that “everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” This fear exists in autistic people too. Except, unlike the rest of the world, at some point a doctor told them they were right. They are different. Now that their fear has been confirmed, they seek out acceptance from their peers, and their difference often gets them shunned for being “odd” or “annoying.” It’s possible to overcome these issues, but in order to change yourself and your mannerisms so much in an environment without support, the mask you make must be composed of anxiety and self-doubt. The mantra of “different” stops coming from your peers, and starts coming from your heart.
The world doesn’t need to be like this. We don’t need to ostracize autistic people, force them to change through loneliness and anxiety, and let those who can’t kill themselves off. That’s not the humanity I want to be a part of. We need to create physical groups to support autistic people and welcome them into society through acceptance and positive reinforcement, not fear and doubt. We need to support autistic adults and children as much as we support their families. It should be obvious that when a society is inclusive, isolation is minimized. Help autistic people feel accepted and supported. Difference is honorable and brave, and does not deserve disdain.
This month we celebrated autism awareness day. In America, we need to move past this. Society is aware of us, yet we still feel ignored. It’s time for Autism Acceptance.