Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have a much greater suicide risk than neurotypical children, according to research recently published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders by researchers from the Penn State College of Medicine. While there has been anecdotal evidence floating around for years that many children with autism go through a suicidal phase, this study is believed to be the first large-scale attempt to gather hard data on the topic. The psychiatrists collected and analyzed information from the parents on 791 children with ASD, 186 typical children, and 35 children who were depressed but didn’t have autism.
Angela Gorman, one of the child psychiatrists who worked on the study, said that the highest risk categories of children with autism were 28 times more likely to think about, talk about, or even try to commit suicide as the typical children. Children with ASD who were male, black or Hispanic, had parents in lower status occupations, or were older than age 10 were considered to be at a higher risk for suicide than other autistic children. And a child who had all four of the risk factors had the greatest risk.
Children also faced an increased risk of suicide if they were bullied or suffered from clinical depression. Of children whose parents said they were depressed as well as autistic, 77% had talked about or tried suicide.
An earlier study in Japan suggested that adults with autism spectrum disorders could have an elevated risk of suicide as well. In that study, researchers found that patients with ASD not only tried to kill themselves more often, they chose more effective methods.
In 2008, a 25-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder, brought attention to the problem of autism and suicide when he walked into a local Walmart and killed himself there. Because they feel different and sometimes unable to cope, even the most intelligent people with ASD may become overwhelmed and succumb to depression.
The Penn State team studied autistic children at all levels of abilities, and both high-functioning and low-functioning children were at risk for suicide. High intelligence was not a defense against suicide.
Gorman recommended that all parents of children with autism pay attention so that they can act quickly if their child begins to think about or experiment with suicide.
[sad boy photo courtesy Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez]