High rates of suicide among people with autism are drawing specialists to a conference this week in England.
“What relatively little we know about suicidality in autism points to a worryingly high prevalence of people with the condition contemplating and attempting to take their own life,” said Sarah Cassidy, co-author of a paper written in advance of the meeting.
“More concerning still, the small body of research that does exist exposes serious shortcomings in how prepared we are to intervene and provide effective support to those with autism who are most at risk of dying by suicide,” said Cassidy.
Cassidy is with Coventry University’s Center for Research in Psychology, Behavior and Achievement. Researchers at Coventry and Newcastle universities organized the two-day meeting.
Urgent action is needed to help those most at risk, but the issue is poorly understood and requires much more research, Cassidy and her colleagues wrote in the report published May 24 in The Lancet Psychiatry.
In the United States, it’s estimated that one in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder. This is the umbrella term for a developmental disorder characterized by communication difficulties, social challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors.
These characteristics can make it a challenge to assess suicide risk and depression in people with autism, experts say.
Someone with impaired communication may struggle to express feelings, according to Dr. Christopher McDougle. He is director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Lurie Center for Autism and a team member of Autism Speaks. And symptoms of autism and depression — such as low energy or social withdrawal — often overlap, he explained.
Cassidy led a study published in 2014 that found that 66 percent of 365 adults newly diagnosed with Asperger syndrome — a high-functioning form of autism — reported having contemplated suicide. In addition, 35 percent said they had planned or attempted to end their own life. And nearly one-third said that they suffered depression.
Her work has revealed significant differences in the risk factors for suicide in autism compared with the general population, she said.
This means “the journey from suicidal thoughts to suicidal behaviors might be quite different,” Cassidy said in a Coventry University news release.
“The models we currently consider best practice for assessing and treating suicidality need to be rethought for those with autism, and policy adjusted accordingly so new approaches are reflected across services,” she suggested.
Autism Speaks has more on autism and suicide.