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Seven Years Ago Today: A Story About Suicide and Autism

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Seven years ago today, my brother committed suicide.

Even as I type that sentence and look at it on my screen, it surprises me a little. Most days I am occupied in my life and busy with work, family and friends, but sometimes the grief for my brother is like a pulled muscle. You move through your life and know it's there, but as long as you don't move a certain way, you're fine. Sometimes you twist around fast or get taken off guard and it pulls and reminds you... "Oh yeah, that hurts." As time passes, you realize that you use that muscle everyday so you learn to be more careful about aggravating it. And you hope that it will heal.

When I think about that Friday night, my overwhelming thought is disbelief. My brother was 21, intelligent, funny, and had just enough of an edge that cute girls were interested and flocked to him. He worked hard and had just moved into his own apartment. He was supposed to pick up his two-year-old son the next morning because it was Saturday. He experimented too thoroughly with drugs in his young life and had recently been diagnosed as bipolar. (Just for clarification, my brother was not on the autism spectrum). Neither of those things, in my opinion, are a reason for him to violently take his own life. Maybe if he would have just fallen asleep that night, he would have woken up on Saturday morning, picked up his son, and went on with his life. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.

In the week that followed, my family dealt with the shock of the loss and tried to find an answer. We hugged and thanked well-meaning visitors offering explanations and silver linings... "He was troubled," "He's not suffering," and the statement that makes me cringe, "Things happen for a reason." We battled denial long enough to make funeral arrangements.

At the time, I was working as a speech-language pathologist in an autism classroom, and when I called to tell my supervisor what had happened, he said that I had four bereavement days so I would have to come to work one of the days that following week. He mentioned that I could take a sick day, but by Wednesday of the following week, I decided to go to work. My family was surrounded by loving, supportive family and friends, and I missed the students. I have always been able to leave my problems outside of my therapy sessions, and a group of seven-year-old boys with nonverbal autism would not want to talk to me about suicide. I was looking forward to our usual chats about Elmo, the Big Bad Wolf, and things that Brown Bear sees.

One of the little guys, Sam*, was described as the "most severe" in the classroom. This was before the iPad or Speak for Yourself app. I had been pushing for an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)** evaluation all year. I had written several justifications because Sam was smart and frustrated, but AAC evaluations took months to actually happen. When Sam and I first met, he would bang his head against the wall of the cubicles and throw himself to the floor. He would kick, hit, pinch, and if you got close enough, he would bite. He would run to the door if he didn't like an activity or he was tired of sitting, and if he had enough time, he would run out the door. If snack foods were within his reach, he would shove handfuls into his mouth.

The classroom teacher and aides were supportive of his communication, and we had started using a communication book with him almost immediately. It took some time, but Sam learned to ask for a "squeeze" instead of pinching, a "walk" instead of eloping, and he could ask for snack foods instead of grabbing them. I worked with the students in a corner in their classroom, but Sam loved to spend speech sessions walking around the school.

As soon as I approached him, he would hand me a sentence strip with the "go" and "walk" icons, and he would leave the classroom with me with a skip in his step. Ordinarily, we would walk around the school and say "hi" to the secretary and ask her for "cookies," we would comment on whether we "like" or "don't like" paintings hanging in the hallways, and we would sit on the bench in the school that looked out to the playground and talk about what was happening outside. On a "regular" day, I would say, "What is that boy in the red shirt doing?" And he would grab the icon from his book that said, "swing." I would say, "Yes he is and he looks so happy," as I pulled the "happy" icon from his book. Then I would say, "Do you see that girl running!?" and pull the "run" icon from his book. He would go into his book and pull out "blue" and I would say, "You're right, the girl wearing the blue jacket is running."

On this day, as we looked out onto the playground, we both sat quietly in our own thoughts. Sam didn't initiate our conversations, but after a few minutes he looked at me. I said, "I'm sorry I'm a little quieter today." Sam did not like eye contact, and I was fine with that. On this day, he looked directly in my eyes, did not turn away, and I felt like he was waiting for more of an explanation. I took a breath and said, "My brother died." My eyes filled with tears as I realized he was the first person I had told face to face. I wiped my eyes quickly and said, "I'm sorry, Sam, it's okay." He went to his communication book and handed me the icon that said, "Sad," and continued to look at me. I said, "Yes, I'm sad," and he put his hand on top of mine and looked at the playground. My voice cracked as I said, "Thank you, Sam."

When I hear or read that individuals on the autism spectrum don't form relationships, don't understand what's going on around them, or that they're "in their own world," I think of Sam. I think of how sweet and compassionate he was and how -- after a year and a half of working to reach him -- he was able to reach me and add light to the darkest of times. When I reflect on my brother's death, in these moments that I twist around too quickly and the reality pulls at me, I think of Sam, with his soft, sensitive eyes. I think of how he literally handed me the only explanation that made any sense... sad. Seven years later, among the sadness and unanswered questions, I am thankful for the little guy who spoke few words, but continues to touch my heart.

*Name changed for privacy
**AAC is used when individuals are not able to talk. It allows people to use pictures and/or push buttons to communicate their thoughts, ideas, feelings, wants, and needs.