by Arié Moyal.
Autistic people are often told that they need to be "fixed" or "cured" of their autism. This ableist mindset stems from the belief that being neurotypical (having typical brain functioning) is the only acceptable way of being. For people with non-visible disabilities like autism, this can manifest in being judged for having sensory issues, difficulties with communication or social interaction, or other differences that may not be immediately apparent to others. However, what most people don't realize is that this ableist mindset can actually lead to chronic suicidality among autistic people.
According to a study published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry (CW: the title uses an ableist term for autism), up to 66% of autistic people have experienced suicidal ideation, and up to 35% have attempted suicide. These are alarming statistics that highlight the urgent need for better support and resources for autistic people, as well as the need for systemic change to address the root causes of chronic suicidality.
Ableism, Social Isolation, and Masking
One major contributing factor to chronic suicidality among autistic people is the experience of ableism and social isolation. It’s a very common experience for autistic people to find ourselves excluded from social interactions and ostracized by our peers, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation. This can be especially true for those of us who have co-occurring mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, which can be exacerbated by ableism and social exclusion.
Another significant contributor to chronic suicidality among autistic people is the pressure to conform to allistic societal norms and mask our autism. Many of us feel the need to hide our differences and conform to allistic expectations, leading to a significant amount of stress and anxiety. This pressure to mask can lead to autistic burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion that can lead to feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation.
But these individual experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is that chronic suicidality among autistic people is also a systemic issue that is rooted in ableism and other forms of oppression. To truly understand the impact of ableism and oppression on autistic individuals, imagine for a moment that every decision and action you make that’s true to yourself was punished in one way or another. This is the reality for many autistic people who are punished, belittled, or excluded for simply being who they are. It is no wonder that so many of us experience chronic suicidality.
For example, the ongoing colonization of Indigenous lands and the erasure of Indigenous knowledge systems have contributed to a culture that places a high value on conformity and assimilation, leading to social and economic conditions that can exacerbate mental health challenges. The medicalization and pathologization of autism have also contributed to a culture that views autistic people as "broken" or "defective," which can lead to internalized ableism and self-hatred.
Curing, Accepting, or Getting Out of the Way
Organizations like Autism Speaks have also been criticized for promoting harmful and dehumanizing attitudes towards autism. A cursory Internet search for this criticism reveals the valid concerns of self-advocates to this effect. The organization's focus on finding a cure for autism reinforces the idea that autism is a disease or a deficit that needs to be eradicated, rather than a valid neurodistinct identity. This attitude can contribute to feelings of self-hatred and internalized ableism, which can increase suicide risk.
It was recently Autism Acceptance Week and I want to say that we don’t need you to accept autism or autistic people. We need you to focus on removing allistic barriers that prevent autistic people from living fulfilling lives. We need to acknowledge and dismantle ableist and other oppressive structures that contribute to mental health challenges and suicide risk. This means supporting Indigenous self-determination and landback, and creating more equitable social and economic conditions for all. Essentially, we don’t need acceptance. We need you to get out of the way.
We also need to prioritize the voices and perspectives of autistic people and other marginalized communities in mental health research, policy, and practice. This includes investing in resources and support that are led and governed by individuals with lived experience, and working towards a more intersectional and justice-oriented approach to mental health.
Furthermore, it's important to recognize that individualistic approaches to well-being can be insufficient in addressing the systemic issues that contribute to chronic suicidality. We need to prioritize collective approaches to well-being that address the social, economic, and political systems that contribute to mental health challenges and suicide risk.
One way to prioritize community-led mental health resources and support is to invest in initiatives led and governed by individuals with lived experience, such as peer support programs and community-based mental health clinics. This ensures that the perspectives and needs of autistic people and other marginalized communities are at the center of mental health care. Black Neurodiversity is one such initiative, a grassroots organization founded by Ben-Oni that centers the voices and experiences of Black and Indigenous neurodistinct and neuroindigenous individuals. They work to create more inclusive and equitable mental health care for all. Learn more and donate at blackneurodiversity.com.
Another important step is to recognize the ways in which traditional mental health care systems can be inaccessible and harmful to autistic people. Many of us have experienced stigma, discrimination, and trauma in traditional mental health settings, which can further exacerbate mental health challenges and suicide risk. This is in part due to sanism, which is a form of discrimination and prejudice against individuals with mental health conditions. Additionally, many traditional mental health treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), have been found to be ineffective or even harmful for autistic individuals. As such, it's important to invest in alternative and complementary approaches to mental health care that are more accessible and affirming of autistic experiences and identities.
Finally, we need to prioritize policy and systemic change that addresses the root causes of chronic suicidality among autistic people. This includes addressing ableism and other forms of oppression in all aspects of society, including education, employment, housing, and healthcare. We need to work towards a society that values and celebrates neurodiversity, and that recognizes the unique strengths and contributions of autistic people.
In conclusion, chronic suicidality among autistic people is a pressing issue that requires collective action and systemic change. By acknowledging and dismantling ableist and other oppressive structures, prioritizing community-led mental health support, investing in alternative and complementary approaches to mental health care, and advocating for policy and systemic change, we can work towards a more just and equitable society that values and supports the mental health and well-being of all individuals.
Find more writing from Arié at: amoyal.medium.com