*Dylan’s mom stood in the doorway of the shiva house, looking out on a grey, stormy day, the weather most likely in precise alignment with the torment inside her. For a moment, I didn’t realize it was she. We hadn’t seen each other for about fifteen years. Her hair was different then, shorter, curlier. We met at an intensive therapeutic program for our then-preschool-age sons. I asked where the family was taking visitors.
“I’m the mom.” ‘It’s me.” She said pointing to herself.
Last week, Dylan, age twenty and a college junior, made the tragically irreparable decision to take his life. No words adequately express the level of devastation and sorrow his family, friends and community are going through.
In many ways, he was a success story. Dylan, despite his Aspergers** diagnosis, (an autistic spectrum disorder seriously impacting social skills) soared in his mainstream classes, worked as a camp counselor, went snowboarding and rock climbing. He also fearlessly tried his hand at skydiving. He was fiercely loved by his parents and three brothers who never hesitated over the years to provide the help he needed.
Dylan may have mastered some significant aspects of his difficulties like academia and driving a car. However, he was all too aware of the serious social challenges preventing him from grasping the last rung on the ladder of achievements–the possibility of being accepted, to not be different and be like everyone else. That coveted lifeline promised to pull him up, making him level with the rest of the world. But Dylan found it elusive. The rung would always be just a bit out of his reach. He was so close.
In his eulogy, his dad expressed sadness that most people focused on his Aspergers rather than his good heart.
Dylan continuously strove to understand social nuance and the mechanics of appropriate conversation. He eagerly tried to learn how to do better. Dylan hoped for friends of his own who would genuinely want to include and appreciate him; to call him because they wanted to catch a movie—not because they were using him to get a ride. He wanted to know what having a girlfriend was like. He yearned for romance and intimacy.
His heart was worn down over time, his dad’s words continued. Dylan worked hard for peer inclusion but got too little in return.
The family, however, is determined not to allow their son’s death to be in vain. They challenge others to include the person who is alone on a Saturday night or the one sitting by him or herself in the cafeteria or social gathering.–‘the one who may lower your social status.’
To say kindness is difficult is counterintuitive. But kindness should not be confused with weakness. In fact insensitivity, selfishness and cruelty is the easy out, impulsively calling forth our most base reaction. Self-control, empathy and compassion are strengths to be nurtured.
It takes soulful effort to fight through personal discomfort and reach out. Brush off social stigma and rediscover common decency. Say hi. Smile—elemental respect everyone deserves. It is so simple. Dignity is a most fundamental right and human need. Humiliation and hurt are powerful emotions that can lead to despair.
Dylan’s family wants people to know that we can set the example. His brothers always included him with their friends and everyone was all the richer for it.
Lack of systemic supports coupled with status-conscious youth set a most tragic stage for Dylan’s final act. The first tragedy was society’s failure to respond.
If that rung was half an inch away, it was a million miles. Let us not dismiss the ability we have to help close that gap for others.
May his memory be a blessing.
From National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.
**Adults with Asperger’s have suicidal thoughts at about ten times the rate of the general population: 17% to 66%