A significant number of people who die by suicide may have undiagnosed autism.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre and the University of Nottingham found in a study that a notable number of people who die by suicide have evidence of autistic traits at elevated levels.
“We found that 10% of those who died by suicide had evidence of elevated autistic traits, indicating likely undiagnosed autism. This is 11 times higher than the rate of autism in the UK,” the researchers told Theravive.
In undertaking their study, the researchers examined the coroners’ inquest records from 372 people who died by suicide.
They checked the records for any elevated traits that could be suggestive of an undiagnosed case or a definitive diagnosis of autism.
They also spoke with families of 29 of the people who had died, to better examine whether the person who had died had elevated autistic traits.
Once they had spoken with the families, they found even more of those who had died displayed signs of autism.
People who live with autism have trouble with social and communication skills. They struggle with changes that are unexpected and may have heightened sensitivity to certain sensors.
A person with autism may have a deep fascination with a certain topic and may have a preference for routines that are familiar and predictable.
Exclusion is one of many potential challenges facing those living with autism. Rates of unemployment are high among this group and autistic people are more vulnerable to issues like poverty, homelessness, violence and discrimination.
Earlier work by the same group of researchers found that 35% of adults with autism have attempted suicide, whilst 66% of adults with autism have considered ending their life.
In the UK, where the research is based, the hospitalization rate of people who have attempted suicide is much higher among those who are autistic.
Roughly 1% of people in the UK have autism, yet up to 15% of the hospitalizations following a suicide attempt are among those who have received a diagnosis of autism.
Earlier research has indicated that both those who are undiagnosed with autism but have autistic traits, and those with autism are more at risk for mental health problems, including suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
“Even one suicide is one too many as a tragedy for the individual and their family and friends. In this new study we sought to corroborate this by analysing Coroners’ reports in completed suicides in the UK,” the study authors told Theravive.
“We assume that suicidal thoughts, plans or attempts are an indicator of depression and that the depression is likely to be secondary to not being adequately supported for their disabilities and not included in society. This means that with the right support and with inclusion, the depression could be entirely prevented and the suicide rate would come down.”
On average, people with autism die 20 years earlier than their peers who don’t have autism. This is due to two factors: epilepsy and suicide.
Many adults find it difficult to get a diagnosis of autism. This is in part due to a lack of availability of diagnostic services and also long wait times.
This study highlights that undiagnosed autistic people may have an increased risk of death by suicide, reinforcing the importance of diagnosis and follow up support.
Ensuring all people have access to an autism diagnosis if they need it, as well as proper follow up support, is the number one autism suicide prevention priority for those in the autism community.
The researchers say this is something policy makers need to act on immediately.
“Governments in every country need to wake up to the fact that autistic people are dying by suicide because of insufficient support. The urgency for change cannot be over-stated.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.