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Coroner records open verdict following death of Norfolk student

PUBLISHED: 13:53 27 September 2013 | UPDATED: 13:53 27 September 2013

Family photograph of Wendy Webb's son David.

Family photograph of Wendy Webb's son David.

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A student who lived with severe autism was found dead after telling friends he hated life, an inquest has heard.

David Webb, 19, was just five weeks into a computer science degree when he was found hanged in his room in Mary Newman Hall at Plymouth University on October 17 last year.

The student was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at the age of four, and attended several schools near the family’s home in Taverham, near Norwich, before moving to Chelfham Mill School in Barnstaple and then City College Plymouth.

Today an inquest into his death heard that his family became concerned about his behaviour during the summer of 2012 while he was back at home.

In a statement read to the court, his mother Wendy Webb said: “He kept himself in a dark room most of the time, he slobbed about and didn’t want to be around us. He wanted to be around peers of his own age, and we felt the best way to keep David calm was to help him to attend university.”

David moved to Plymouth on September 9, and his mother said a transition plan put was in place to help him adjust to his new life.

She said: “I was concerned about David’s tendency to get very depressed but showing little outside signs. He had told me not to text him unless it was an emergency. I heard nothing for three weeks and on September 27, my birthday, he called and I was delighted.”

That was the last time David’s family heard from him. The inquest was told that on the night of Saturday, October 13, David had an altercation with a group of fellow students in the communal kitchen they shared.

The inquest was told his friends were concerned about his erratic behaviour, believing he may have taken drugs.

He exchanged a series of text messages with student Hayley Thompson late that night, in which he wrote: “I hate life and myself. All I do is piss people off and waste space.”

Having not seen him for several days, David’s flatmates raised the alarm. A warden found him dead in his room on Thursday, October 17.

Detective Constable Joe Mercer, of Devon and Cornwall Police, attended the scene. He told the court: “There was nothing immediately suspicious about the circumstances, there was no evidence of third party involvement or drug use and there was no note.”

Recording an open verdict, coroner Ian Arrow said: “David was an intelligent man, he was clearly very good at dealing with computers. He was very keen to attend university and live an independent life. We know he was on the autism spectrum and I think it was tough for other students to interact with him.”

“He may have had a touch of bravado, in that he liked to say he used drugs, but there is no evidence of that. I am satisfied that on the night of October 13 he went out to be sociable with people he thought were his friends. I think there was a misunderstanding in the kitchen, and it appears to me that probably David felt ostracised from the group. I am aware that there was an exchange of texts, which I believe may have put some pressure on David.”

Mr Arrow added: “I am satisfied that he may have been issuing a cry for help. I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that he intended to end his own life. I suspect he probably felt somebody would come and find him, as they had on other occasions.”

Speaking after the hearing, David’s mother said: “David was a real success story and we’re hugely grateful to everyone who helped him to achieve his dreams and so much in so few years. Tragically, he died after five weeks at university, due to his complex needs.”

“We have no criticism of the support he received, and are glad that he made friends at university. However, we would like lessons to be learnt from this, to ensure that other young people like David are better supported through the transition into university life.”

David’s family have raised money for the National Autistic Society, and have named a star after him. They have also planted a tree in his memory near Dartmoor through the Woodland Trust, and a poetry collection, The Mortal Man, has been published in his honour.

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