Weekly Wrap: What Killed Aaron Swartz? ... A Murder-Suicide Minus the Murder. ... And the 1 in 50 Millstone
Aaron Swartz looks like a "canary kid" to me. The tech wonderkind, creator of RSS and Reddit, born in November 1986 and a suicide this January, had the dark circles around his eyes and the combination of intensity and depression, keen intellect and chronic ill health, that seem like the two poles of life for so many kids and young people today.
Of course, he was also under indictment for unauthorized downloading, and faced the possibility of a few months in jail (not the 30 or 40 years the media keeps citing). Those who knew him best said they thought the criminal case wasn't really enough to explain why he hung himself, and the details that have emerged suggest what that "else" might be.
"He was small and frail and shy and often sick," according to a New Yorker profile. Specifically, "he had Crohn's disease; he also thought that he was a 'supertaster,' experiencing sensations of taste more intensely than regular people. Partly for these reasons, he ate only foods that were white or yellow. He ate pasta, tofu, cheese, bread, rice, eggs, and cheese pizza. He was phobic about fruit and wouldn't touch it."
The profile also suggests that a combination of medicines might have triggered suicidal impulses. Regardless, he had enough health issues to remind us of too many other young people in this Age of Autism -- kids with sensory issues, food sensitivities, gut problems that can be disabling.
As I wrote last week, suicide is not just a psychiatric outcome but often reflects a biomedical crisis for the body and mind triggered by environmental factors we need to start acknowledging.
I also wrote last week about the phenomenon of murder-suicides, mostly by young men, and noted that the horror of mass murder obscures the fact that all of these young men first decided they were willing and perhaps eager to die themselves. "Suicide by cop" -- in which the only outcome for the perpetrator is death at his own hand or a law officer's -- has become a term of art.
Right on cue, we had the example of a student at Central Florida University who appears to have been planning a mass attack but, after pointing a gun at his roommate and being cornered by the police, shot himself. (And after I wrote these words on Thursday, a Marine not far from me in Northern Virginia killed two other Marines, and then himself after being cornered by the MPs. It's getting hard to keep up.)
Too many young people are too willing to die. Why?
I was traveling this week and heard about the 1 in 50 rate from the CDC while I was in Illinois. I happened to talk to a physical therapist in a downstate school system, who told me something has happened to increase the actual numbers in the past 10 or 15 years, and it's not better diagnosis.
In a typical setting for special-needs kids 15 years ago, he said, there would be 1 or 2 children with autism. Now there are 30 or 40. Before, the autism kids might conceivably have had a different label, according to this first-hand witness -- behavior disorder or emotional disorder. But there still would have been just one or two of them, not 30 or 40.
That's the 10- or 20-fold increase that can no longer be hidden.
On the flight back from Virginia, I sat in front of a crying child. Thank God for iTunes and earbuds. But I noticed that each time after the child cried, he had trouble getting his breath. He wheezed. He had asthma. I went from feeling sorry for myself for my seat selection to feeling how awful it must be to gasp for breath before you could even talk.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.