(Content Warning: medical problems, references to death, suicide, murder)
I came across an article by Sarah Kurchak today, entitled To Neurotypicals On My 36th Birthday and it really resonated where my thoughts have been lately. I commented on the article, but I felt I needed to expand my comment.
I have tried to live a healthy life style all my life. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, I don’t do recreational drugs, I try to eat right, and I am I runner. Unfortunately, the statistics are not on my side. Due to my genetics, my life expectancy has been shortened.
As the aforementioned article states, the ages for the life expectancy of autistics vary a bit, but the statistics point to an uncomfortable reality. Autistic life spans are shorter than typical life spans. A study out of Sweden completed late in 2015, entitled Premature mortality in autism spectrum disorder, revealed that people with autism died an average of 16 years earlier than those who do not have autism. There are other studies out there that support the Swedish study findings.
Why is it this way? Why do autistics seem to die younger than those who are not autistic?
Previous studies had shown that 30 percent to 50 percent of people with ASD have considered suicide at some point in their lives. Bullying, anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation and alienation all contribute to this. There is a high cost trying to cope in a world that is not designed for you nor is accepting of you.
Then there are the co-existing conditions that seem to be common to people with autism. Chronic health problems can shorten a person’s life span. Epilepsy, Elhers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), gastrointestinal problems, sensory overload, and lots of stress related illnesses, which can lead to physical ailments, including heart disease, brain inflammation, strokes, and diabetes – these seem to be common occurrences in the lives of autistic people.
I was diagnosed when I was 36 years old. This is the same age that the article is focusing on, the same age that the researchers CNN cites say is the average age that people like me die.
I am a teacher and have been for almost 20 years. During the 2011-2012 school year, the same year I was diagnosed, my doctor told me that my stress was actually killing me. This is why I don’t have a classroom of my own anymore. I was very fortunate to be able to find employment where I can work predominately from home, but still keeps me in the education field. I don’t know if I will ever be able to return to the classroom on a regular daily basis.
Due to EDS, my body has been falling apart all my life. I have been a runner for 24 years. It has kept me out of a wheel chair. I had to stop backpacking and weight lifting long ago. I have had to garden in pots for years now (doctors’ orders). I am not even supposed to push a grocery cart anymore, because the right side of my diaphragm is no longer securely attached.
I don’t know how much longer my body and mind can take. Stress can literally kill you. I am so tired. I do know that whenever I just what to collapse, my body won’t. It has got a lot of fight in it still, though. When everything went to hell at 21 weeks when I was pregnant with my son, my body gave everything it had to keep him alive. He was born healthy and to term. That was 15 years ago and my body has never fully recovered. I am still bleeding internally with significant nerve and tissue damage.
I am 42 years old now and I don’t know how much longer I have. So, I will just keep carrying on the best I can with the time I have.
Looking through my old writings, I see that this carry-on-attitude is found all over. I mean, what else can I do, but to keep moving forward? I am a single mom for two teenagers. I don’t feel there is much choice in the matter. The only other option that I see is giving up and dying. My resilience is too strong, which I explain in “Strengths of Autism – Resilience”. My body won’t let me give up, so I keep going.
In The Hidden Meaning Behind “I’m Tired”, I explain that the phrase “I’m tired” is just a cover for a long story of struggle, confusion, stress, frustration, pain, and exhaustion. I am always tired. It never seems to go away and it has only gotten worse as I have gotten older.
In September 2017, I came across this meme with a quote by Dr. Shana Nichols:
“Females with ASDs often develop ‘coping mechanisms’ that can cover up the intrinsic difficulties they experience. They may mimic their peers, watch from the sidelines, use their intellect to figure out the best ways to remain undetected, and they will study, practice, and learn appropriate approaches to social situations. Sounds easy enough, but in fact these strategies take a lot of work and can more often than not lead to exhaustion, withdrawal, anxiety, selective mutism, and depression. -Dr. Shana Nichols”
How long can a body maintain a perpetual cycle of burnout, stress, and pain?
I really don’t know.
Something my children’s psychiatrist told us this past week:
ARC – Autistic Renewal Cycle
ABC – Autistic Burnout Cycle
They need to acknowledge ABC, but focus on ARC. Both are in ABC right now. As a family, we need to find ways to break the ABC using ARC.
I have struggled with ABC for so long. Every year I would find myself in some level of autistic burnout. I need to break the cycle, too.
What the ARC looks like depends on the individual. Basically, an individual needs to be encouraged and provided opportunities to do activities that fuel them, that give back emotional currency.
Being stuck in ABC can potentially shorten a person’s life. The cycle must be broken, but that is not a easy thing to do. How does one fuel their emotional currency?
Personally, I feel it has a lot to do with acceptance. I feel acceptance is the greatest gift you can give to a person.
According to Rick Hanson Ph.D.:
“Accepting people does not itself mean agreeing with them, approving of them, waiving your own rights, or downplaying their impact upon you. You can still take appropriate actions to protect or support yourself or others. Or you can simply let people be. Either way, you accept the reality of the other person. You may not like it, you may not prefer it, you may feel sad or angry about it, but at a deeper level, you are at peace with it. That alone is a blessing. And sometimes, your shift to acceptance can help things get better.”
Acceptance is an action and it requires work. Kassiane S. explains this concept beautifully in Acceptance vs. Awareness:
“Acceptance comes from a place of understanding. Understanding isn’t generated by soundbites and posterchildren. Understanding takes work. To accept us, people first need to acknowledge us as individuals-as three dimensional, growing, developed characters. We are not all the same, and we are not but a collection of deficits. Acceptance is seeing that-and seeing that one’s distaste for an autistic person is more likely than not because of “autism”. Awareness tells you that anything objectionable about us is “autism”, but that explanation is clear, simple, and wrong.
Acceptance requires facing that which makes you uncomfortable about us, thinking about why it makes you uncomfortable, and confronting any prejudice at the root of that discomfort. To accept us is to make a conscious effort to overcome that prejudice, to recognize that your discomfort with our differences is far more your problem to overcome than ours.”
In Accept Them As They Are, Dr. Hanson continues to explain how you find acceptance:
“Consider how you have gotten tangled up with this other person, struggling to change them. When I do this myself, I become aware of my own rightness, positionality, judgments, pushiness, irritability, narrow views, hurts, longings, grievances, or remorse. See if you can let go of some, even all of these entanglements. Open to the easing, relief, and peace that can come when you do.
Also consider how much you like it when you feel that another person accepts you completely. It’s a beautiful gift – and we can give it ourselves to others when we accept them. Imagine how it might improve your relationship with someone if that person felt you accepted him or her fully. Acceptance is a gift that gives back.”
I am so very tired of fighting just to survive. I explained this in So, how does it feel to actually live your life as opposed to just surviving? I chose years ago to live in the moment, because I don’t know how any moments I have left.
When people want to push the idea that there is a supposed autism epidemic (there isn’t), I have found the question that will inevitably come up is, “If there is no epidemic, then where are all the autistic adults?”
Autistic adults are there and have been there since there have been people. From what I have learned, autistic adults seem to disappear either by choice or design. As they age, they either remove themselves from society to get away from the unrelenting life killing stress or they die at a much younger age than non-autistic adults. The question really should be, “If autistic adults have always been there, then why are you not seeing us?”
In closing, I would like to reiterate what Sarah Kurchak stated in her article about what to do if you want to help and add a few words of my own.
- Listen to us.
- Believe in us.
- Let us be our authentic autistic selves.
- Invest in our work.
- Invest in science and actions that actually make our lives better now instead of chasing a hypothetical cure.
- Meet us halfway, we can’t do all the work to conform to your world. Compromises need to be made and bridges need to be built. Help us build that bridge.
- Tell us you accept us and mean it!
- Tell us we don’t bore you.
- Tell us we don’t drain you.
- Tell us we are not broken.
- Tell us we are not a burden.
- And above all, don’t kill us.