Study finds teens with autism more likely to develop suicidal behavior due to bullying

October 21, 2020

A study published in Autism Research found that adolescents on the autism spectrum who were bulled were twice as likely as peers to develop suicidal tendencies over time.  

Researchers followed 680 adolescents ages 13 to 18 who are on the autism spectrum receiving mental health services in south London. Teens who were referred for pre-existing suicidal thoughts and behaviors were excluded from the results.  

Teens who said they were bullied during the first month of receiving mental health services were twice as likely as other autistic teens to develop suicidal thoughts or behaviors within five years.  

“We know young people with autism are more likely to be bullied, and this is especially concerning when these children are also more likely to have other mental health concerns like anxiety and depression,” said Thomas W. Frazier, Ph.D., chief science officer at Autism Speaks. “This study draws a more direct line toward the impact bullying has on mental health for autistic teens who are already being treated for a mental health concern that was not suicide.” 

Forty-four percent of adolescents who reported bullying early in treatment expressed suicidal thoughts or behaviors in their follow-up assessment. Researchers suggested future research to determine whether interventions to stop bullying have a similar effect on reducing suicidality for teens with autism. 

Although 25 percent of the group were female, a larger proportion of the bullied teens were female. Females had nearly double the risk of suicidality compared with males in the study, and researchers pointed to female gender as a significant risk factor for suicide in autistic teens. 

With previous published reports estimating that more than 60 percent of children with autism are bullied at some point, professionals working with autistic teens should consider this study’s findings and ask about bullying to better understand risk for later suicidal behavior. 

“Preventing bullying takes the whole community, including schools, family, peers and health professionals,” said Frazier.  

Autism Speaks provides resources for families, educators and students on bullying and bullying prevention, including a Special Needs Anti Bullying Toolkit

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK(8255).