Autistic children are 28 times more likely to be suicidal

A recent study conducted by Penn State researchers has revealed that children with autism are significantly more prone to suicidal thoughts and attempts than typical children. The question now is, why?

For the study, researchers looked at the frequency of suicide ideation and attempts in over 1,000 children ranging in age from 1 to 16. Broken down, they studied 791 kids with autism, 35 neurotypical depressed children, and 186 neurotypical children with no underlying psychological issues.

The researchers, a team led by Angela Gorman, also considered achievement, cognitive ability, and various demographic factors. And interestingly, the study, which now appears in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, was the first of its kind to use information provided by parents (mothers specifically) to assess the children.

Gorman’s results showed that 14% of children with autism think about suicide or make actual attempts — a rate that was 28 times greater than that for typical children (0.5%) but significantly less than for depressed children (43%).

This surprising result prompted Gorman to declare in the study: “All children on the autism spectrum should be screened for ideation and attempts.”

In addition, four demographic variables emerged that were of consequence. After the age of 10, Black or Hispanic autistic children were at increased risk of suicidal thoughts or attempts (33% and 24% respectively) when compared to whites (13%) and Asians (a somewhat surprising 0%). This meant that socioeconomic status and ethnic differences were more significant than other factors, like intelligence or perceived functioning level.

The researchers also found that cognitive ability or IQ did not have much effect. Both “low functioning” and “high functioning” children exhibited similar tendencies.

Importantly, autistic boys were more likely to think about suicide than girls (by twice the amount), but gender differences were not significant for suicide attempts.

In terms of the reasons why, the researchers discovered that depression and behavioral problems were highly correlated with children who were teased or bullied.

This observation prompted Psychology Today’s Lynne Soraya (who has autism) to write:

Personally, I believe the pain of bullying and isolation is based on commonalities – the feelings and reactions that we share with others. Most human beings long to connect with others – we aren’t so different. But our differences make it more likely that we will experience rejection, ostracism, and bullying. Other minority groups experience this as well – which only makes it logical that a person who is a member of more than one group would experience this more intensely.

What can we due to prevent this from happening? It comes down to acceptance, diversity, and inclusion. Where a society is inclusive, isolation is minimized. People can feel accepted and supported. Can we, as a society, learn to honor difference, instead of treating it with disdain?

I hope so. I really do.

For her next study, Gorman would like to develop a screening tool to help her team sort through and rule out the various factors involved.

Image: Zurijeta/Shutterstock.