Suicide risk in autism

Anne V. Kirby, Ph.D., assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Utah

This Got Questions? response is from Anne V. Kirby, Ph.D., assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Utah.

Q: I’ve read some news reports recently about suicide rates rising for certain age groups of kids. What should I know about suicide risks for my teenager with autism?

Suicide rates are a national concern, and it is important to know that individuals on the autism spectrum are among those at risk for suicide. Research in this area is still emerging, but studies show that individuals with autism may be at greater risk for suicide and show higher than average rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

People with autism often have co-occurring conditions that affect risk for suicide. Depression and anxiety are just two of the common mental health conditions that affect people with autism that can also increase risk for suicide.

Although there is not yet enough research to know if certain age groups of people on the spectrum are at greater risk, we do know that young people in general are a high-risk group. In broader population studies, youth suicide rates have been increasing since 2007. In particular, suicide among girls ages 10-14 tripled between 1999 and 2014. Overall, suicide rates increased more than 30 percent among 10- to 19-year-olds.  

In a study I published earlier this year, we looked at 20 years of suicide data in the state of Utah. We found that while rates of suicide among people with autism were similar to the general population until 2012, suicide risk rose and was significantly higher for people with autism between 2013 and 2017.

We also see a pattern of risk for females with autism that is greater than what is seen in the broader population. In fact, in our study, females with autism had three times the risk for suicide as females without autism between 2013 and 2017.

Research is just beginning to look at possible risk factors and warning signs specific to people with autism. A few studies point to depression and depressive symptoms as predictors of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Signs of depression and anxiety in people with autism can be different than among people without autism. You can talk with your teen about his or her mood and share this information with your provider if you are concerned about depression.

If your child is nonverbal, you can look for other clues. Changes in appetite or sleep, or lack of interest in typical activities, are also signs of depression. Social withdrawal, low energy and flat facial expressions, while common in autism, can also signal depression if they are new symptoms.

Given the greater risk for depression and suicide in people with autism, staying engaged with your child’s emotional health can help you notice early signs of trouble. Bring up any concerns with your child’s provider right away.

You may also be interested in our Autism POVs podcast episode, “Autism and Bullying.”

Find more information about depression and autism and handling mental health crises in young people on our website.

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