Suicide is sometimes described as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But what if the source of that thought is autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that begins early in life, and while it can be treated, it can't be cured. Many people with autism live long, happy, fulfilling lives. However, teasing, loneliness, societal pressure, and economic distress often come along with autism. Those problems can feel permanent and overwhelming.
Suicide risk in autism is real, and sometimes, crucial signs slide by unnoticed. If you're feeling unsure about your future, or you think someone else is struggling, don't wait.
Start a conversation, and include experts like psychiatrists in the talk. Together, you can craft plans to ease pressure and soothe dangerous thoughts.
This work is critical. If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, it’s time to reach out for help.
Suicide Prevalence & Risk Factors
Studies suggest that people with autism face a higher suicide risk when compared to people who don't have autism. Those with a specific set of traits are even more likely to entertain thoughts of self-harm.
In a 2013 study, researchers examined people between the ages of 7 and 13 years with autism. They went through assessments of:
- Functional impairment.
- Behavior challenges.
- Emotional problems.
About 11% of these people had suicidal thoughts or behaviors, the researchers found.
This risk persists throughout one’s lifespan. In a separate study performed in 2018, researchers examined 164 adults with autism, along with 169 people who didn't have autism. At the end of the study, 72% of autistic adults were deemed at high risk of suicide, compared to 33% of adults without it.
Researchers also found that adults with self-reported autism symptoms, even without a diagnosis, had a higher suicide risk than those without those traits.
Anyone with autism could entertain thoughts of self-harm, but studies suggest that people dealing with these issues could have an even higher risk. These issues include:
- Impaired social communication. Some people with autism can hold in-depth conversations and express their emotions. Others can't, and that dysfunction enhances suicide risk, researchers say.
- Depression. Some people with autism meet the criteria for clinical depression. People like this are much more likely to think about suicide than people without depression. Researchers also say that loneliness and depression are linked, and when they connect, thoughts of self-harm rise.
- Bullying. People with autism can stand out, and sometimes, that leads to bullying. Researchers say insistent bullying can lead to suicidal thoughts, particularly in people who can't make the targeting stop.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers say this risk is most pronounced in women with autism. In women who have both conditions, one in five attempts suicide (compared with one in eleven men who have both conditions).
- Camouflaging. Some people with autism spend most of every day looking for ways to hide their autism symptoms. It's an exhausting way to live, and researchers say the effort enhances suicide risks.
People with autism may also face real risks that researchers haven't yet examined. They could feel economic pressures due to few employment opportunities, for example. They may feel isolated and alone, even though they desperately want to connect, and attending events like weddings and funerals can enhance their sense of loss.
People with autism are individuals, and the risks seen in one person don't always apply to everyone else. But the research is clear. Many people with autism either think about harming themselves or they do so.
Traditional Suicide Warning Signs
Suicidal thoughts aren't exclusive to autism. Many people think about ending their lives, and experts use their stories to help others spot signs of distress.
Experts say these signs indicate someone is thinking about suicide:
- Planning: Someone looks for ways to harm themselves. As plans solidify, they may say goodbye to friends and give away possessions.
- Discussing: Some people tell others about their suicidal thoughts, or they talk about feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or pain.
- Mood changes: They may seem anxious, agitated, angry, or sad. They may shift from one mood to another very quickly.
- Withdrawal: They may pull away from the ones they love. They may avoid family gatherings or stop returning phone calls.
- Behavior changes. They may sleep more, sleep less, drink alcohol, use drugs, or alter their eating habits.
This list was made with neurotypicals in mind, and the signs you see here may not apply to someone with autism, but crossover can occur. For example, someone with autism might make sophisticated suicide plans, including charting out options, and discuss them with you. Someone with autism might also grow obsessed with famous people who have died by suicide.
Before you think nothing on this list applies to you, think carefully. A few traits might apply.
Suicide Warning Signs in Autism
Many traditional suicide red flags involve conversation. People talk about how they think or feel, and their words worry the people they love. Autism can alter those signs.
Researchers point out that some people with autism struggle to express their emotions, and that makes tough talks difficult. They may not:
- Talk about feelings of depression or loss.
- Cry openly.
- Express emotions through body language.
- Share plans with outsiders.
Their difficult feelings exist, but they may need a little help in bringing them out in the open. Experts say families can:
- Try conversation. Don't assume someone with autism has nothing to say or won't open up. Talk about the signs you've seen. Leave plenty of space between your statements, so the person can talk when it's time.
- Watch for changes. Alterations in sleep or eating habits could signal depression. So could abandonment of the things the person once loved.
- Pay attention to social cues. Does the person feel reluctant to spend time with others? Does the person seem agitated when returning from social engagements?
Watch carefully with an open mind and heart. You can't change the way the person thinks, and you shouldn't try to do so. But you can be an important observer who sees things that others miss. Your observations could help to save the person’s life.
Treatment Options for Suicidal Thoughts
Suicidal thoughts rarely fade away without help. Treatment programs address the suicide triggers, so people can move forward to happier and healthier lives.
For people with autism, a suicide prevention plan might involve:
- School officials. If bullying sparks suicidal thoughts, teachers and principals must be part of the solution. Families can demand a step-by-step action plan to surround the child with safety while at school. When children with autism feel safe, they are less likely to think about hurting themselves.
- Underlying mental health. Depression, anxiety, and ADHD can all enhance suicide risks. Therapies, including medication, could help to smooth imbalances and reduce distress.
- Communication. Sharing difficult emotions can lead to solutions. Therapies such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) can help people with autism talk about their thoughts with their families.
- Social situations. Loneliness and isolation lead to a sense of hopelessness, but it's hard for some people with autism to find and make friends. Experts say therapy to reduce social anxiety can help people with autism make the connections they long for. Once these relationships are in pce, people with autism feel more secure in life.
Suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts, are medical and psychiatric emergencies. Some people with autism must spend time within inpatient facilities, so they can remain safe until the crisis passes.
If you've spotted signs, don't wait to talk with your loved one’s doctor or other mental health professional. Get the help that is needed now.
Resources to Use
You've identified suicide warning signs, and you know you must take action, but you can't connect with the person's doctor right away. What should happen next?
If you think someone is in imminent danger, call 911 and ask for help. You can also reach out to these national and local hotlines:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255 for free and confidential help. Experts are available around the clock, and they're ready to work with people having suicidal thoughts, as well as the families that love them. This national hotline has experience dealing with people from all backgrounds, including people with autism.
- Crisis Text Line: Text the word "home" to 741741. A crisis counselor will text you back to start a conversation. This tool is ideal for people with autism who prefer electronic communication over face-to-face chats.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak to an expert about a current crisis. This organization also has plenty of helpful resources available online for people in crisis and the people who love them.
- Autism Response Team: Call 1-888-AUTISM2, and speak to a crisis support specialist. Get help for a suicide attempt happening now, or lean on this resource to help you address other forms of mental health distress. This response team is trained to deal specifically with people with autism.
To learn more about how suicidal thoughts translate into actions, visit the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. This organization hosts training programs that can help you improve your knowledge and skills.
Parents & Teachers: Act Quickly
Imagine this scenario: You're connected with a child who has autism. You're not the child's primary caregiver, but you're invested in that person's health and well-being. You've seen signs that worry you. What happens next?
Don't take the symptoms you see lightly. Take these steps now:
- Speak up. Reach out to the child's parents about what you've seen. Give dates and times, if that's helpful. Be specific.
- Get an expert's help. If you can connect with the child's doctor or therapist, do so. These experts need to step in immediately, and the child should be monitored until those professionals arrive.
- Listen. Allow the person to express difficult feelings. Don't tell the person they can't or shouldn't talk about their experiences. If they can feel less alone, this goes a long way in boosting mental health.
- Offer support. Don't make promises you can't keep, but encourage the person to believe that treatment works and things can get better. There is hope.
You could be a lifeline for a child in need. Take your responsibility seriously, and help the person you care about. Though suicidal thoughts and autism sometimes go hand in hand, many people with autism live happy, full lives. You can help your loved one embrace this type of future.
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