Sex, Slenderman, & Suicide: Crucial Conversations with Autistic Adolescents – Part 4 – Adulthood

TW/CW: This post will discuss suicide, physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse, and interactions with law enforcement/authority. I will address these topics explicitly, as I feel that the information needs to be given directly. 

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This post is about what challenges emerge when autistics grow up. I know most people do not comprehend this reality, but autistic kids become autistic adults the moment they pass 18 years of age – whether we accept that fact or not. The problems are not going to get any smaller with age. It does not become easier to navigate the world as we get older. In fact, the unspoken rules, cues, and discrimination only increase and the cost of failure increases.

In this post I will refer back to the previous 3 posts regarding challenges and difficult conversations that need to be had with autistic students and children. The same conversations I discussed one earlier posts need to occur with adults, but it is always easier if we have these conversations with autistics while they are young.

The takeaway of this series of posts is as follows: We are often hesitant to talk about sex, suicide, menstruation, physical and sexual abuse, etc., because we are afraid to broach the topic with our autistic loved ones. We do not want to worry or scare them with these “icky” or seemingly inappropriate topics. Well, guess who is already worried and anxious about these things: your autistic loved ones. What we need to do is to be the “adult” and be willing to engage in these difficult conversations when our loved ones seek our help. We are doing our loved ones a favor by being honest, assertive, and direct; no matter how difficult or uncomfortable the topic of conversation may be. 

An Educational Aside

So, I was speaking with a parent of an autistic student and they suggested I write a post about the conversations I have with students because I do not shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics. I thought about what she said a lot and I realized I am unique among a lot of teachers because I am willing to talk about things like puberty, sexual orientation, CreepyPasta, depression, or suicide with students so long as the situation and conversation are appropriate. And I do it with a nonplussed expression that gives the students a sense of calm, or at least a perception that I am in control and not surprised by their questions (this video shows two great police interrogators doing exactly this).

I feel this is an overlooked yet important role for a teacher. Anytime I see students starting down a tough path I want to intervene before they go so far they reject outside help. In hindsight, I worry how some situations would have turn out had I not taken the time to help the students get a grasp on their own thoughts and feelings.


This is part 4 of a 3 part series on crucial conversations. See the first part here for a description of my approach and rationale for taking on these conversations, here for Part 2, and here for Part 3. Part 4 just kinda happened unexpectedly, much like the Spanish Inquisition.

Suicide

With regards to suicide, a recent paper came out from Sweden that pointed out that autistics are 9 times more likely to die of suicide than the general public (other studies came to more drastic conclusions). Furthermore, those with so-called “mild” autism and women/girls on the spectrum are more likely than boys or those with so-called “severe” autism to attempt suicide (get the paper here and a press release for the layperson reported on by Autistica UK here).

Now my earlier post on this topic covers how I handle these cases of suicidal ideation and talk regarding suicide, so I will not rehash those ideas here. I will explain a reality that I have recently realize I have taken for granted: Autistic people have a hard time trusting nonautistics, but when they do trust, it is a deep, meaningful relationship that lasts.


I occasionally receive phone calls from one of the students discussed in the previous post. Whenever he is extremely depressed and wanting to really hurt himself he sits down with his mother, puts the phone on speaker, and calls me. His mother sits and listens, but does not engage unless my student brings her in on the conversation.

We go through all the steps I described before. I listen. I listen a lot. I let him cry. EVERY time he shows emotion, I validate that emotion, and let him know that I do not judge him for feeling rage, anger, sadness, depression, anxiety, fear, etc. They are good emotions and need to be expressed. He needs to hear this, otherwise I would just be silent. I let this young man express himself and use me as a sounding board and safe place where he can work out his issues.

When I get together with this young man in person, the first hour is usually like the phone calls. He has a flattened affect, difficulty responding to stimuli and questions, etc. Then he lets out any anger he is feeling and frustration. After a while (~45 min), he is able to talk out his issues and we can get on to topics of conversation that he enjoys (i.e., The Eleventh Doctor or how to train his cats to bite his brother but not him).

I have told him and his mother that I am available 24 hours a day. I even have their phone number programmed into my phone as an emergency bypass so they don’t get blocked by my “do no disturb” filter at night.

I thought this was a unique, isolated situation unique to this student until I noticed my mother has the same thing happen to her. She receives phone calls from depressed former students. She handles them the same way I do. She steps away from noise so she can give full attention, she listens, and she asks basic questions to guide these students to a better spot.

What I think is important here is the fact that in both cases of these young men calling myself and my mother, is not actually that they call us. It is that they know deep down we can be trusted and they can talk to us about anything and we will help them without agenda or frustration at them. We will not contribute to their emotional stress and we will not try to solve their problems for them. We will just listen and empower them to come to the right solution for them.

These former students of ours feel they can communicate their emotions to us honestly and we will still respect and love them after the conversation – however unpleasant it may be.

I feel this is a critical point because these trusting relationships were built early. In my case elementary school and in my mother’s case she bonds with students in intermediate school / junior high. These relationships last for years, decades even. What floors me is that after all that time, students that call my mother still have not found other people that they trust anywhere nearly as much as her.

That means she is the only one the students feel comfortable talking to about their problems. Think about that for a second. You are out of high school, but one of your 7th grade teacher’s aides is the only one you feel you can talk to about your problems. That’s a rough situation.

Physical and Sexual Abuse

I have gone into this before but I am going to be a bit more specific regarding adulthood and physical/sexual abuse. The graphic below is a quick primer on the manner by which disabled and autistic people may potentially be abused by their loved ones in partner relationships.

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So far as statistics are concerned, reports range from 50-70% of adult autistics have been physically or emotionally abused by someone they trust, and 90% sexually abused in some form. And these are numbers for adult autistics-not kids (those numbers are even higher). A 2014 survey in Britain reported the following (and it is important to note this is likely a vast underestimation of the frequency).

Half of 1,300 sufferers questioned by NAS said they had been abused by someone who they thought of as a friend, 37% said they had been manipulated to do something they didn’t want to do by these so-called friends and 44% said fear of abuse or harassment led them to not want to leave the house.

Meanwhile a quarter of those polled said they have had their money or possessions stolen.

This goes along with what I reported in the previous posts on this topic but I will reiterate here:

More than 90 percent of people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual abuse at some point in their lives. Forty-nine percent will experience 10 or more abusive incidents (Valenti-Hein & Schwartz, 1995). Other studies suggest that 39 to 68 percent of girls and 16 to 30 percent of boys will be sexually abused before their eighteenth birthday. The likelihood of rape is staggering: 15,000 to 19,000 of people with developmental disabilities are raped each year in the United States (Sobsey, 1994).

People with developmental disabilities may not realize that sexual abuse is abusive, unusual or illegal. Consequently, they may never tell anyone about sexually abusive situations. People with and without disabilities are often fearful to openly talk about such painful experiences due to the risk of not being believed or taken seriously. They typically learn not to question caregivers or others in authority. Sadly, these authority figures are often the ones committing the abuse. Many special education programs have encouraged students to be compliant in a wide range of life activities, ultimately increasing the child’s vulnerability to abuse (Turnbull, et.al., 1994).

If we do not teach our autistic students and children how to care for themselves and  advocate for themselves, this cycle of abuse will not stop at age 18.

Just the other day on twitter I was conversing with some autistic folks regarding physical and sexual abuse from their spouses/partners. I am not going to link to it since some of them have private accounts and I am going to respect their privacy and avoid accidentally doxxing them. Resoundingly, they communicated that they felt personally responsible for the abuse they were receiving, and despite being angry at the perpetrator, did not assume it was the abusers fault. They also communicated that they were lucky to find anyone willing to love them and it was their responsibility to stay with that person and give them the benefit of the doubt.

Some of us tried to convince these individuals that they were not responsible for their being harmed, to little avail as their emotional blame was already well established.

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This is a problem that is not going to go away. We MUST advocate for our autistic loved ones and teach them what others can and cannot do to them. Otherwise the cycle of abuse will just keep turning over.

Again, I am going to harangue on communication.

By our actions as teachers in school we unintentionally teach autistics that their opinions and reports and complaints are less valid than those of their nonautistic peers. So they learn the survival strategy of internalizing everything bad that happens. They blame themselves. This is what we have to fix.

I approach autistic people the same way I approach everyone, trust but verify. I assume they are telling the truth, at least from their perspective. I want them to know I believe them so long as they tell the truth. I do not question them. I do not twist their words. I believe them.

It is precisely because I believe my autistic friends are telling the truth they are willing and able to tell me the whole truth, even inconvenient and unpleasant bits. 

Substance Abuse

Self medication is an issue for all populations with disabilities. Autism is not an exception. Unfortunately the vast majority of the literature available on the subject is asking the wrong question. Scientists are trying to answer the following: “Why does autism make people prone to become addicts?”

I think that is the wrong question. It comes with a ton of loaded assumptions.

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I frame another question that does not have as many troublesome assumptions: “Why do autistics seek out addicting substances?”

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I think the answer to this question is exactly the same answer as for the rest of us. We seek out addicting substances because they offer a reduction anxiety, they release inhibitions, and they can be relaxing. In extreme cases, for an escape from reality.

Twin studies in Australia suggest that, like suicide, it is actually individuals that show “milder” autistic traits (autistic women and so-called “high functioning”/”mild” autistic men) tend to abuse alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana more than the general population (or their non-autistic twin in this study). Those with more profound autistic symptoms as reported in these studies tend to abuse substances less, but research suggests this is likely either due to decreased social access to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, or else due to the need to live in a supervised setting wherein access is explicitly controlled or outright prohibited. Interestingly, the researchers found that autism had nothing to do with whether drugs or alcohol were experimented with in the first place, but rather the patterns in the data suggest that autistics have an easier time becoming addicted to substances of abuse. Scientists have posited that this is due to some addictive personality traits, some form of compulsive behavior, or just because they receive a greater reprieve from anxiety than the average nonautistic person does.  To date there is still no established answer, and my guess is that no-one has actually surveyed autistics regarding this question.

Interestingly, it is hard to find information that is reliable about substance abuse within autism. But it is VERY easy to find rehab centers with wings designed to cater to the needs of the autistic addict as they detox (access to cognitive-behavioral-therapy, sensory accommodations, etc). This in itself tells me there is a larger problem of addiction in the autistic community than science has been able to ascertain.

So again..solutions. My opinion is that, again, no one has given the appropriate information to the autistics regarding drugs and alcohol and unfortunately talking about these things theoretically may not always answer autistics questions, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying and keeping communication going. We can always do our best to teach and help and inform. Just leaving the autistic to their own devices can no longer be an option. We need to break down the why on dangers associated with intoxicating substances. We often use scare tactics to dissuade alcohol, tobacco, and drug use with our youth, but we do not verify that these same lessons are heard by autistic or disabled populations. When we teach autistics about drug and alcohol use, we need to break our arguments down to explicit, step by step, nitty-gritty elements. Give the information to the autistic person, have a dialogue with them about their options, and then have confidence in them to back off and let them make their own, now informed, decisions.

Interactions with Authority/Law Enforcement

I have a few stories about my brother Kyle here to illustrate the importance of communication when interacting with law enforcement. To reiterate his background, Kyle was my twin brother. He was a nonverbal autistic that was perfectly able to function at school and home with a computer to speak for him. For more info please go and enjoy the blog posts under what I call the Kyle tag.

Kyle was generally compliant and fun-loving, but he was not slight in stature and if he got frustrated or agitated he would make a piercing medium-high pitched scream (loudly vocalizing EEEEEE!). He also would move around aggressively and lurch back and forth to get others out of his space. He never really hit people, he would pinch me and my mother on occasion, but more than anything he would actually pinch and bite himself on the arm. Hard. Basically he was much more willing to hurt himself than others. In fact, even when he was a child he was more willing to attack teachers if they were disciplining other students than if they were punishing him.


I am going to tell the stories of the two times Kyle was put in handcuffs. He was not an adult for either of these, but there are lessons we can extrapolate to the situation of autistic adults. Mostly regarding communication and how easy it was for Kyle to appear noncompliant, even when following directions to the “T”, simply because he was unable to verbally speak to the officers and he lacked access to his assistive technology.

The Public Library

The first time Kyle was handcuffed was when he was in 7th grade. He, my mom, and I would go to the library after school. Kyle would look at magazines and mom would give him space so he could be independent. I would go off and hunt down as many books as the library would let me check out and set myself down to start reading one of my new books.

On this particular day, Kyle deviated from his normal pattern. Instead of staying by the magazines like he always did, he went into one of the offices and started looking in one of the desk drawers. When he was told to stop what he was doing, he ignored the librarian and continued searching in the drawer. Because he was noncompliant, the police were called. When Kyle did not follow the officer’s instructions,  he was handcuffed, and quietly led out the side door of the library. At this point Kyle did not make any sounds to indicate duress or anxiety.  He just quietly allowed the officer to put on the handcuffs and then Kyle compliantly went with the police officer.

When they got Kyle into the police station (which shared a parking lot with the library, so this was a 2-minute walk max), they sat him down and started asking him questions. Every time they posed him a question he stood up and walked toward a computer that was on at another desk. They officers told him to come back and sit down, which he did. Every. Single. Time.

They finally got his lunch card that had his name on it and called the Junior High and spoke to the vice principal. The vice principal told them that Kyle was not the kind of kid to steal things from desk drawers and told the officers to go and find my mother, who would surely be in the library.

The police came over to the library and found my mother and asked if she was Kyle’s mother, she said yes and the officer told her that Kyle had been arrested and would she come over to the police department.

When they got over, Kyle tried to get mom to take off the handcuffs. When she asked the police officers, they said they could not take the cuffs off yet because Kyle still had to answer their questions. Mom, being mom, sat respectfully and watched the officers asking Kyle questions and Kyle immediately trying to go over to the computer to answer the questions, just to be told to sit down – which he did immediately and without  visible frustration.

Mom finally told the police officers that Kyle could not talk and he was trying to answer the questions whenever he stood up because he talks using a computer (see here). They said they did not want him touching the computer because there was a work in progress on the screen. This was the mid 1990s, so computers were not as easy to alt-tab away from tasks as they are now.

After a bit more of the back and forth the officers closed out what was on the computer and opened a word processor. They asked Kyle his name and he walked over to the computer and tried to type handcuffed. He couldn’t, so they had to loosen his handcuffs. They asked him his name, and he typed it. They asked him his father’s name, and he typed it. They asked him his mother’s name and he turned around, looked at them like they were insane, and pointed to her as if to say, “ask her, she is right there” or else, “you already know that”. Regardless his communication, it was a hilariously sassy look he flashed them from what I am told.

After this back and forth and everyone stopped laughing after Kyle was pointing at mom rather than typing her name, the police took off his cuffs. Kyle hastily tried to grab mom’s hand and walk out, but mom told him he needed to stay and listen to the officers because they had to deal with a situation. The police had a long talk with Kyle about how he was never to do what he did ever again and property rights. Mom went into the school and made the classroom teacher change the system so Kyle did not have access to the treats himself any more–and they were moved out of that desk.


Now, the background to all of this was that in Brigham City at the time there had been a pretty big problem with drug addicts, often while high, going into businesses and rifling through desks to get cash. They would just come in, grab money, and leave.

Given this was 1994 and Kyle always had an eye for style, he was wearing very baggy pants and a big baggy, long, brightly colored T-shirt. That is to say, he dressed like a lot of these drug addicts did. Like this photo below from a story on the drug use culture in 1994 in fact…

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Partly because he was a person that was usually smiling and he dressed fashionably, no one in public ever jumped to the conclusion that Kyle was anything other than normal. When I went out with him, usually people would avoid me and go talk to him. And he would just smile and enjoy the attention. After a while I would have to tell them he cannot talk, but only when they looked ready to take offense at his not answering.

Kyle, at school, was given rewards in the form of treats from a desk identical to the one in the library. Because he was trustworthy, the teachers would just send him over to the desk to open the drawer, and find the bag of treats and get one. He never went to the desk and took treats without permission. At least until that day in the library.

…can you see where I am going with this yet…

So when he was going through a desk he did not have permission to access, he was profiled as one of these drug users looking for money. And since he was not communicating with the police officers, they would have been in their right to put him in a cell rather than in a comfortable chair while they tried to figure out what was going on.

The great part of this story was what happened next. The mayor got wind of what happened and set up a “Handicap Awareness Fair” and mandated that all city employees attend and learn how to handle disabled people in the city.

This was a perfect scenario. No one messed up. Kyle was treated fairly and amicably given the situation. It could have gone sideways but it didn’t.

To help with scenarios like this, my mother got Kyle a laminated card he could carry in his wallet. The other side had his name, my parents’ info, and my aunt as an emergency contact. For Kyle the “I may recognize and use some sign language”, “I may be able to ‘talk’ with a computer”, and “I may appear agitated when I am frightened” were marked. Others could have been marked but my parents chose the essential ones.IMG_0384


My point with telling this story is that if this situation happened today, I doubt highly it would have gone so innocently. Brigham City in 1994 was (and still is) a very safe place and the police have reasonably little reason to fear violence. Back then it was virtually nil. So when Kyle was appearing to be noncompliant/noncooperative by standing up and trying to get to their computer, they just verbally redirected him and tried to figure out how to proceed.

In today’s world, given Kyle was not a small guy and he was rather strong, I perceive he would have gotten roughed up a little during the arrest and he would have been put in a cell as the police try to figure out why he is being uncooperative and apparently refusing to answering questions.

An Overreaction to an Unfair Teacher

The other time Kyle was put in handcuffs was at school. Kyle was in a life skills class to learn job skills and was doing an assignment that was transcription. The teacher told him what he had to do and gave him his assignment.

Kyle finished it with lightning speed because this assignment happened to require one of his skills. Typing. Kyle could type >100 words per minute using just 6 fingers and he rarely, if ever, misspelled a word once he had seen it once.

So Kyle finished rapidly. And as a result was given a lot more work to do. I have only heard, but as I heard it he was given a PILE of work that could be measured in centimeters, not merely pages. So Kyle flipped out.

He screamed. He started running in the room. He moved aggressively. At home we know these are behaviors he used to clear the area and give him space, but if you do not know what it looks like Kyle was going to start indiscriminately opening a can of whoop-ass.

This was sufficiently terrifying to those in the room that the peace officer assigned to the school came in and had to defuse the situation. This involved putting Kyle in handcuffs and trying to talk him down. When my mother came in to help, she saw the police officer and they both realized they knew each other (my sister used to babysit the police officer’s kids).

Kyle was still highly agitated so the police officer was hesitant when mom suggested he undo the handcuffs so she could calm Kyle down. When the police officer undid the handcuffs, Kyle’s hands shot up above his head in agitation and mom had to help him calm himself down by gently touching his hands and speaking to him in a soothing voice.

The police officer was amazed at how quickly Kyle calmed down. The officer was amazed as he, legitimately, had perceived Kyle as a threat that needed to be forcibly restrained by handcuffs to preserve the safety of those in the room (again, he was not wrong to do this). The police officer had my mother show him what she was doing so he could remember those tricks if they were ever needed again.

Again, this was a perfect scenario. No one messed up. We were not angry Kyle was handcuffed. He appeared to be very dangerous and a threat so the office acted with appropriate restraint. The officer did not know him well enough to know which of Kyle’s behaviors were “back off” behaviors and which behaviors were actually aggressive.


These anecdotes get to what we are seeing in the news in 2017. With Kyle and an idyllic Brigham City of the time, both of Kyle’s interactions with the police ended up as ideal scenarios. That world of the past does not exist any more. Both civilians and police live in a heightened state of anxiety that leads to poor, impulsive choices, underscoring the need for us to help teach our autistic loved ones how to act in these stressful situations involving the police.

My solution, not to kick the dead horse some more, is communication. There is a movement afoot to teach peace officers how to communicate with autistics and how to correctly interpret their actions. We need to also teach autistics how to communicate with police and other authority figures. This can take the form of scripts, a card like Kyle had, or just practice repeatedly in real world situations until truly functional communication come naturally to the autistic person.


Conclusions

Basically, autistic children grow into autistic adults. Say that over and over until it sinks in. Unfortunately, the challenges of life and difficulty in necessary choices, independence, and social interaction become more complicated, more difficult, and answers are far less straight forward.

My solution to all problems is to build relationships early and provide education. As teachers and caregivers, we need to make sure our autistic students and autistic loved ones know they can TRUST us to have their needs and their best interests at heart. That way they know they can ask for help if they need it. And if they do not need help, we will get out of their way and let them grow up as they see fit.

And beyond everything else.

Help our autistic students and loved ones know how to effectively communicate their thoughts, needs, desires, and experiences. Then believe and respect their communication. 


For anyone wanting to know more about autism as experienced by autistic adults, I recommend looking at the #actuallyautistic hashtags on Twitter  and Facebook.

Please just read and soak in their opinions, challenges, and successes rather than engaging directly. It is a very different perspective on autism than that you see anywhere else on the internet or in advocacy organizations.

Note: The autistic twitter and Facebook communities also like to preserve the #actuallyautistic hashtag for use by autistics, so please respect their convention. They will interact with nonautistics using the #autism or #autistic hashtags.


The takeaway of this series of posts is as follows: We are often hesitant to talk about sex, suicide, menstruation, physical and sexual abuse, etc., because we are afraid to broach the topic with our autistic loved ones. We do not want to worry or scare them with these “icky” or seemingly inappropriate topics. Well, guess who is already worried and anxious about these things: your autistic loved ones. What we need to do is to be the “adult” and be willing to engage in these difficult conversations when our loved ones seek our help. We are doing our loved ones a favor by being honest, assertive, and direct; no matter how difficult or uncomfortable the topic of conversation may be. 

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Sex, Slenderman, & Suicide: Crucial Conversations with Autistic Adolescents – Part 3 – Suicide

TW: This post is about suicidal ideation and suicide. I do describe suicide attempts and frank discussions with students regarding the details of their suicidal ideation. 

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My previous two posts in this series (Part 1, Part 2) discussed how to handle difficult conversations with autistic students. Part 1 discussed sex and how to help autistic students navigate the world of sexuality. Part 2 discussed how to help students understand the line between reality and fiction, particularly when they are immersing themselves in a scary or fearful reality.

I emphasized in both cases the importance of having a relatively nonplussed if not flat affect when engaging in these conversations. The reason for that is that the child already is having a hard enough time understanding their own emotions without the emotions of others complicating matters.

In cases of talking about sexuality, the student is experiencing feelings they do not understand. They are becoming sexually attracted to another person, be it of another or the same gender. In Utah same gender attraction is particularly difficult for children to understand because the LGBTQIA community are just beginning to be able to openly enter the public forum.  They do not know how to process this. If we tell them that they should not be feeling those emotions, they will shut down. If we tell them they are not feeling their emotions, they will not only shut down but they will start questioning themselves. They will shrink away inside. If a boy is attracted to boys, fine. If a 2nd grade child is entering precocious puberty and experiencing sexual attraction, fine. These are facts, we should be able to dispassionately listen.

In cases of Slenderman or other CreepyPasta, the child believes that something fictitious is real. Telling them they are wrong is not particularly helpful. Acting all scared and freaking out on them contributes nothing to the situation but may actually deepen fear and belief in these fictional realities. If they believe in Slenderman, fine. If they believe Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin are real, fine. If they believe Dr. Who is real, fine.

In the case of the present post, I will address suicidal ideation and attempts. This is one of those cases that having a stone-faced expression is extra important.

               

I say it is extra important when discussing factors related to suicide and suicidal ideation because there is a very real danger of our emotions making the situation worse-and this is one time we cannot afford to make matters worse. These children are having emotions that adults with a lifetime of experiences often cannot handle; without the life experience to put them into context. Also, children are more impulsive than adults, further complicating discussions about emotions. We often have to fight our natural tendencies to try to solve problems and provide answers rather than just listen. We will hear students say things that make no sense and might be downright wrong. We cannot emotionally react. This is hard. All we can do it listen and validate their emotions. Nothing more.

This post gets to an important point I did not mention earlier with regards to the video of the interrogation I link right below. Note that one of the girls starts out the interview by flat-out lying, because she’s scared and wants to give a good impression of herself. She tries to pin everything on the other girl and acts all innocent and naive. By this time the police have evidence that this girl is far from innocent. As the interviewer does not give emotional feedback, her story changes and becomes inconsistent because she is unable to use the emotions of the interviewer to guide her actions. This is not to say the girl was being evil in any way, she was only doing what we all do when we meet someone for the first time. Be on our best behavior and try to give a good impression. Kids will try to either give adults what they want to hear or else the opposite if it gives attention or escape from consequences. We have to give the student time to trust us and let the truth come out on their own terms-then we get the unbiased truth from their eyes.

An Educational Aside

So, I was speaking with a parent of an autistic student and they suggested I write a post about the conversations I have with students because I do not shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics. I thought about what she said a lot and I realized I am unique among a lot of teachers because I am willing to talk about things like puberty, sexual orientation, CreepyPasta, depression, or suicide with students so long as the situation and conversation are appropriate. And I do it with a nonplussed expression that gives the students a sense of calm, or at least a perception that I am in control and not surprised by their questions (this video shows two great police interrogators doing exactly this).

I feel this is an overlooked yet important role for a teacher. Anytime I see students starting down a tough path I want to intervene before they go so far they reject outside help. In hindsight, I worry how some situations would have turn out had I not taken the time to help the students get a grasp on their own thoughts and feelings.


This is part 3 of a 3 part series on crucial conversations. See the first part here for a description of my approach and rationale for taking on these conversations and here for Part 2.

Suicide

Example 1 – 13 Reasons Why

I was in a Junior High recently helping out. After playing a few games and working with some kids they pulled me aside. This was a group of 5 autistic students and one of their peers. They wanted to talk with an adult about 13 Reasons Why. They did not understand why the girl committed suicide.

Now, I thought 13 Reasons Why was a bit clumsy in their presentation, and thus confusing for these autistic kids. In the context of the series it was clear that the girl was tormented by everything that was happening to her and chose suicide as a way to escape seemingly unavoidable pain and torment. These students did not get it.

They were confused about why the girl (Hannah) was so troubled by the vast majority of the bullying that was described. These young boys (as all were male) did not understand how a lesbian kiss, a racy photograph, a friend being sexually assaulted, breakups, or being voted “best ass” would be so terrible. These students told me quite matter of factly that being raped was a sufficient reason to commit suicide, but the other issues in the show were insufficient. They wanted so badly to understand. Their nonautistic friends/peers seemed to understand and were talking about 13 Reasons Why and these students wanted in on the conversation.

Here was how the conversation went. These students grabbed me and asked about 13 Reasons Why and then volunteered the info in the above paragraph. They then asked why these things were a big deal…and was Hannah in the TV show right for slitting her wrists. Not small questions, but sort of important ones. Fortunately a school social worker was in the room with me for this conversation. They just sat and listened to the conversation in case they were needed but preferred to leave the talk to me because these students approached me specifically to ask.

In this case, I went to the Rogerian method to see if I could help these peers answer their own questions. I asked how embarrassed they would feel if someone had an inappropriate photo of them and sent it to everyone and now everyone saw that image without permission. These students talked for a few minutes about how they would feel and it ended a mixed bag. About half said they would not have taken the picture and thus it was an “invalid hypothetical situation” (as one put it), and the other half went from lack of understanding to mortification thinking of someone seeing them in a private or compromising situation. A similar conversation ensued for a video of them kissing someone of their nonpreferred gender and having that passed around. They all felt being nominated for “best ass” was a stupid thing to be angry about as it was a compliment. I was not able to sway their thinking, so I didn’t try.

The social worker jumped in and helped with the next question…the friend that was raped. All of these students said it was inappropriate to take the anger one would feel toward the rapist and kill yourself for it. They unanimously agreed the right thing would have been for Hannah to kill the rapist. At this point I jumped in and told them to settle down and think for a bit about what they were saying, and they agreed perhaps the right thing to do would be to go to the police, not go all Tarantino on the situation. But they were stuck on one point: why did Hannah internalize someone else’s suffering? Was she guilty for not trying to help or not reporting it? Why did she do that to herself? She was stupid? She was not thinking? And so on.

I asked them if they ever knew someone had done something wrong and hurt another person and they were unable to do anything about it because they did not know how or were scared. They all said yes (much to my surprise). They said they saw things all the time they did not know how to deal with. I asked if Hannah could have been the same so her inaction and her friend’s pain was eating away at her. They said yes, but pointed out she was not autistic so it did not make sense she acted like that. I said maybe and gently reminded them that not only autistics have difficulty dealing with complicated emotions.

For the rape, I just listened and added a few thoughts to help guide them in more helpful directions. They asked why she was going to this person she knew was a rapist, even if she was trying to get a confession. One then asked if the girl was dumb and thought she was in a movie going to entrap him like that. They did not understand any of her actions leading up to the rape. I interjected here to ask if her actions justified the rape and they changed tack very quickly (honestly, I was just unwilling to let any boy think an action from a girl ever justified rape – and they jumped to the same conclusion almost immediately). They said no, it was not her fault. It was the boy. They were just thinking out loud earlier and did not mean to suggest it was her fault. He hurt her and deserved to be killed (I reminded them the police exist for a reason, and to remember our society does not condone going around killing people-regardless what they do to us).

What surprised me was the next thing said. All of the students thought the rape alone was sufficient reason to kill oneself. They said they could imagine the powerlessness and pain of having something like that happen and how a person would want to not exist. They were angry at the teacher on the show for not taking it seriously when Hannah reported the specifics of the rape to him and passively sought help.

Okay…that was sort of intense a conversation for a bunch of 7th-8th graders, so I had a few questions to put things in context. I asked if they understood suicide was a permanent thing. It was ending a life. Killing one’s self. No coming back. It was not an idea to be taken lightly or to joke about. They understood that. It was actually for this reason they were confused. These students heard peers talking about how cool the show was and how “lucky” Hannah was that she just solved her problem. These autistic students thought she made a bad choice and could have gone to therapy or given the tapes to the police rather than kill herself.

I agreed with the students that suicide is literally the most extreme option and that it does not actually solve any problems. The problems and life are still there for everyone else to deal with, you just do not exist any more. They felt that suicide was not a good idea and still did not understand why friends were speaking positively about it like it was cool. I suggested that their friends either were dealing with things these students did not know about or else they could be showboating and trying to sound cool.

Apparently, that last sentence was what these students needed to hear. They could handle the fact that perhaps their peers had hard lives. They also could understand that these kids were being stupid and joking about things they didn’t know anything about.

Regardless, we all agreed suicide is not a good idea and we should go talk to out parents or school counselors if we ever have suicidal thoughts. The social worker reported to me these students had stopped talking about 13 Reasons Why afterwards. Apparently they had no more burning questions and thus were able to just let it go and move on.

Example 2 – Suicide as an Extreme Solution to a Manageable Problem

This was a tougher conversation because the student was angry at all adults when we sat down to chat. Earlier that morning this student had thrown themselves into traffic on a major thoroughfare with a hope of getting hit by a car. Fortunately the car had stopped. The parents, rather than taking this student home, delivered them to school as normal. Needless to say, this student never made it to class as they started trashing the school the second they got inside. They climbed up on things and tried to belly flop off them to harm themselves. I physically intervened to get the student into the gym and away from a crowded hallway. They ended up hanging out with me for a while on the stairs to the stage in the gym while no one was in there.

I asked what was up and I was told to “…go fuck yourself” and “shut the hell up you bitch asshole. You don’t know anything”. Clearly they were not going to talk to me. So we sat next to another for an hour or so, staring at the gym floor. Importantly, I did not pull out my phone or look at papers I had. I just sat with this student, waiting for them to be ready. Just as bored as them. Finally the student asked a loaded question: “Why do you like me. No one likes me?”.

I answered honestly, “I don’t know, I just do”. The student was confused, but knew I was telling the truth. So we sat some more. By now I had memorized every scratch and flecks on the gym floor. The student then, out of the blue, notified me they tried to kill themself by jumping into the road on the way to school. I asked where. They answered (it was a well thought out location). They recounted what happened, that they had planned it all weekend, waited until the right moment, and went for it. But failed. The student was mad it didn’t work, but not overly concerned, so I was concerned.

I asked if there was anything the student wanted to talk about, no limitations on the topic. The student said no and returned to staring at the floor. But they did not move away from me, so I stared at the floor too and waited. Probably 5 minutes later they told me they were sad or angry all the time and never had any fun. Play was not fun. Video games were not fun. Riding their bike was not fun. They had no friends. They hated school. They were mad at one parent and violently lashing out at the other one during weekend visits. They spent the weekend alternating between crying and looking for sharp things in the house to throw at this parent. The student said that it was because they were so angry and mad and sad that they wanted to kill themself to start over.

I interjected, “Start over? What do you mean?”. I had dealt with suicidal students in the past and they often did not understand the concept of death and its (as far as we know) permanence. After my question the student looked at me like I just asked directions to my own house. They told me that “suiciding myself” would start everything over. I restated that I didn’t understand how it would “start everything over, what does that mean?”.

This part scared me as I had often heard it before. The student had a belief that can be best understood by remembering how obsessed autistic kids are with Minecraft. The student believed that if they died they would “spawn” somewhere else as another person and perhaps they would be happier.

So, this student that had just made a suicide attempt believed that death was like a video game. They would just respawn somewhere else on the map and start afresh. I texted the school social worker and kept the conversation going. It was now beholden on me to help a child to understand that death is permanent. Life was not a video game. When we go, we are gone. And people are sad because of that.

I spoke to this student about reality and fantasy. We talked about his family’s religious belief system with regards to the afterlife. This student had never considered that the idea of a heaven was incongruous with their ideas of “respawing” or whatever reincarnation scenario they perceived as life after death.

This got the student thinking. They asked, “so suiciding myself is not a good idea, huh?”. I asked what they thought and the student said, “I dunno”. I asked if they wanted me to call their therapist for an impromptu conversation and the student said yes. In the time we were waiting on the therapist this student opened up about a LOT of perceived problems at home. I listened calmly and without judgment. It was clearly cathartic for the student.

I texted the psychologist, who was able to move things around and come to the school for the rest of the day to work with this student and extend upon the conversation the student and I had, which the student recounted to the psychologist so the therapist knew where to begin based on what this student comprehended from our conversation.

This student remained depressed and anxious, but at least they did not attempt anything dramatic after our little chat.

Example 3 – Slenderman and an Ominous Black Skull

This is continuing from my Slenderman post and about the student that was trying to encourage the rest of the students in the class to commit suicide. I had mentioned that this student had been talking about suicide and that was what brought the CreepyPasta connection to my attention. Everything below I pieced together from talking to this student and his peers as I never did get the whole story from the paraeducators that were present at the time this behavior emerged.

This student was outside one day and running around screaming that he was going to die and it was time. He was telling other students that they should do it as a group and he would show them how. He told them they would go to the tallest building in the city and jump off. If they survived the doctors would give them strong pain pills that they would use to overdose themselves. He took some peers up on the jungle gym and jumped off to show them how. He then climbed back up and started pushing the other students down to show them how to commit suicide.

I was talking to a teacher mentor (as this was before school) and a paraeducator brought this student into the school and said he was “not invited at school any more because he was saying inappropriate things and pushing kids”. That was all I got. My paraeducator was trying to ban this student from school, so obviously I had to intervene. The student was so upset that he ran to a corner, hung his head and started sobbing. I walked over.

I asked him what was up and he said he was sad. I said that was fine. Sad is okay. I would sit by him until he was ready to talk. I quickly set the day up with the paraeducators to teach the class and I sat by this student. After 15 minutes he started to talk.

He told me he wanted to kill himself. He could not sleep the night before because in his dreams he saw a black skull in the clouds that was seeping blood. This was an omen that he was going to be murdered. He told me he had stolen matches from his house and tried to open the knife drawer, but no one knew he had tried. He wanted to not exist any more. Everything was bad and there was no point to his existing. Death would be a good break. His family would be happy. He would no longer be a problem. He would no longer be bad.

After a few minutes of listening I asked him if he was ready to come inside so we could talk in a private spot with chairs. He said no, so we sat outside in the wind staring at the rubber chips in the play area. After a few more minutes he told me he was too sad to do anything and I just needed to let him curl up in a ball and die. I told him I was not allowed to do that, but I would walk to the other side of the play area to give him some privacy if he wanted. He wanted me to stay close because he was scared. So I stayed.

After an hour or so the student wanted to go inside and sit in a safe dark place so I said that was fine and let him. He immediately fell asleep. I took advantage of the time to talk to the school psychologist, call his parents, and communicate to the clinical psychologist associated with the district.


The next day the district sent a crisis team to work with this student. They followed him around during an extended recess and were talking to him. I had warned them to keep and eye on the school boundaries as this student was capable of bolting and taking them on a chase. He walked them out to the border of the school boundaries and started talking to them. He told them a range of stories that got the attention of the crisis team.

He told them about the time he tried to murder his little brother and the time he accidentally broke his sister’s arm with a baseball bat. He told them that he played with himself a lot and he was a devil worshiper. He also runs away from home at night.

Not one of these stories were true. Some had elements of truth that was used as a base for the lie. But he got one hell of an emotional reaction from these four adults. They were concerned about him being psychotic and dangerous. They worried about his well-being. They clearly were feeding this student’s attention seeking tendencies. And better, he was able to make up extreme stuff with his imagination and these people were believing every word he said and feeding him emotions in return. Emotional manipulation at it’s finest.

I assert he was just telling the adults what they expected to hear and he was protecting himself by not telling the truth. Kids are not going to reveal their secrets to strangers and let alone adults that are new. This student felt out these adults, saw they were hanging on every word, and he went for it. Since they were definitely giving reactions, he continued. Had the crisis team kept straight faces without giving emotional fuel to the fire, they may have at least gotten closer to the truth. Definitely this student would not have made himself out to sound like a complete psychopath to get attention.


When the district clinical psychologist came to visit, I debriefed her not on what this student had said, but that he had been emotionally playing the crisis team for chumps. He had been escalating his stories based on their reactions and she needed to keep an eye on that when she spoke to him.

The district psychologist met with this student for a few hours and then with his mother. After a few rounds of telling tall tales and getting no reaction, the student dropped his guard and just started telling the truth of the situation, which was pretty much the same as he told me. He did volunteer some information to her that he did not give me like knowing where firearms and ammunition were located in grandparent’s houses.

The consensus was that this student was not in fact suicidal. But he was well capable of it and we had to treat it as a serious situation as his plan was credible and well thought out. The student had been careful in word usage with both me and the clinical psychologist that he had, in the past, tried to kill himself, but that was when he was “very, very, very, very – 4 very’s – angry” but that right now he was only “very very – 2 very’s – angry”. He did want to commit suicide that day when talking to his friends, but that was because he was so angry at himself for being a not good friend and a bad person because he was depressed.

He notified me that he had in fact tried to severely injury (but never kill) his brother using knives and other sharp objects. He used to escape his house through his window until his parents put an alarm on it. He had tried to start the house on fire.

He did not know why he did these things, but he really wanted to at the time and then later feels guilty about it and wants to kill himself. He constantly causes himself pain to punish himself for being bad, mostly by stabbing himself on the end of his fingers with nails or pins. He also draws bloody and angry things because it lets him see what he is feeling. The picture below is God (“Heavenly Father”) killing him using every means necessary to be sure the job gets done.

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He then told me he wanted to kill himself to solve these problems. I asked how it would solve them. He said, “I would be gone, and I am the problem”. I asked how that would work and he countered with a very hard, yet heartfelt question, “Dr. H. What happens when we die. Where do we go or do we just go away?”

I went over his family’s religious perspective on heaven and an afterlife. We discussed reincarnation based on the Hindu tradition (he brought it up). We discussed that reincarnation is not in any way related to respawning in Minecraft or Super Mario Bros. To this day I do not know if he truly understood death was a permanent state, or even if he was yet capable of understanding permanence of decisions. It was an important conversation nonetheless because it allowed this student an opportunity to contemplate mortality with someone there to help with context rather than doing it on his own when sad, angry, or depressed.

At that point we made a deal. We discussed how depression is not bad. Being mad at one’s self or at other people is not bad. Being anxious is not bad. Being hyper is not bad. Choosing to be naughty is the problem (and for the record this kid could be naughtier than almost any other student I ever met when he chose to). We would do the following: If he was feeling too strong an emotion and he felt out of control, he could talk to me about it. I would give him space to deal with it and then we would do work. If he was depressed he would tell me. If he wanted to kill himself he would tell me and we would talk through it together. If he was happy he similarly would tell me and we would talk through his happiness together.

I was rewarding the sharing, not the specific emotion being shared with attention; and I was doing it on purpose.  Sharing became easier. The major bouts of depression dropped from weekly to biweekly to monthly. This student was functioning better. But he still had days where there was nothing he could do but feel buried by his depression and extreme anger. So I gave him space to let himself be emotional with no consequences; with the expectation that schoolwork would still be completed.


It is my true belief the clinical psychologist only got the truth from this student by being patient and completely nonplussed. In every case (and with me on many situation), this student always started with 2-3 lies to protect himself; and these were usually bombshell level whoppers calibrated Thor maximum effect. If he got a response to one of the lies, he would double down on it and make a believable narrative out of it. This freaked out a lot of people and they truly thought of him as a dangerously unstable child and in great need of institutionalization.

In reality, he is a cripplingly shy autistic child that presents like a person with borderline personality. He has too much empathy to function sometimes, particularly for injustices toward animals and disabled children. His empathy leads him to rage, which he internalizes. He shuts down and becomes self-critical (and self harming) when he makes a mistake and gets corrected in a brusque manner. He would be hyper and almost manic when he was in a good mood, drawing 20-30 amazing pictures in an hour while talking to friends and cracking jokes, then he would crash and retreat into a virtually impenetrable shell of depression and fear. Yes, when angry he was capable of violence, even extreme violence; but this was not his defining characteristic. When he was given some coping skills and a listening ear that just listen to his feelings and validate them, he became somewhat able to manage his own emotions.

Most importantly, his reported suicidal ideation went down with time, even when his depressive and manic states did not change all that much in frequency. He was developing some emotional identification and coping skills. This student just needed to have someone not judge them.

Conclusions

From an earlier post on autism and emotion:

[W]e constantly tell autistic chidden (and adults) that their emotional world is wrong. We tell them that they are broken and they need to at least act like everyone else because that is somehow “right” or “correct”. We demand they feel how we want them to; often because we are not comfortable with others feeling differently than ourselves. What should be happening is that we need to be specifically helping autistic children understand and work with their emotions. In fact, we need to do this with all children, but I will focus on autistic children as they are my future students.

Despite the public perception, what I see when I see autistic individuals are very emotional people. In fact, I would say in every way other than the verbal expression of their internal state, they have a much more intimate appreciation of their emotional state than many of us do. It is not that autistic people wear their emotions on their sleeves, they don’t-but their actions are much more closely linked to their affective state than a great many people.

As a concrete example, my late brother was very giggly, smiley, puckish, mischievous and silly when happy, very weepy and prone to cry when sad, and get out of his way if he was frustrated or angry. Interestingly, it was not just the angry states that left Kyle in a state where he could not function, when he was happy and puckish his life was just as disrupted as when he was angry or sad. He felt his emotions quite acutely, but he did not have the tools necessary to work within his emotions in day-to-day life.

In my short time teaching I have found that it is actually quite easy to connect emotionally with the autistic kids I have worked with. They are keen to share, so long as there is no manipulation intended on my part and that I am patient with them as they work through their issues. I find if I take the time to ask the right questions and listen closely to the answers, I can actually serve as a sort of sounding board or therapist that can help my autistic students understand their emotions and not be controlled by them.

I do everything I can to follow my own advice here. For suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, I validate their emotions. I know autistics have a rich emotional life, they just sometimes lack a skill-set or toolbox necessary to express this to the rest of us. So I try to meet them halfway. I do not volunteer words or ways to express the emotion, I just express that I believe that they are feeling what they think they are. Then we work together to give these emotions names and characters that we can use to communicate.

I want autistic students to feel empowered by the knowledge of their feelings and sense of control that it brings. In short, I want them to thrive, emotionally. I want them to grow. And I want them, to be the ones making these breakthroughs, not me.