Reducing the Risk of Suicide in the Autism Community

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Autism is a spectrum of developmental conditions that affect the way someone sees the world and interacts with other people. Autistic young people might communicate in different ways, have intense interests, and be more sensitive to sounds and other sensory experiences.

Sadly, autistic young people are more likely to develop mental health conditions than people who are not autistic. Seven out of ten autistic people may have a mental health disorder like anxiety, depression, or OCD. 

Autistic people are at a particularly high risk of suicide ideation, suicide attempts, and dying by suicide. Research has found that among people with Asperger’s syndrome, one form of autism, 66% may have experienced suicidal ideation at some time in their lives, and 35% may have planned or attempted suicide. Children with autism are 28 times more likely to think about or attempt suicide.

Suicide in the autism community is a national crisis that requires transformative social change. Research is helping us to understand why suicide is more common among autistic people and what we can do to change it.

Understanding the Risk of Suicide

We still don’t know whether the reasons that lead autistic people to suicide are the same as for other people. Suicidal thoughts may be caused by difficult life events, feelings of hopelessness, and mental health issues. Autistic people have suggested some other reasons that may explain why autism has higher rates of suicide, including:

  • lack of access to support
  • physical health concerns
  • high unemployment
  • delays in diagnoses

Many autistic people describe feeling like they do not belong in this world. Difficulties with social communication can make it hard for autistic people to form close friendships or find a group of friends. It may also make it more difficult to build a support system, something that can be invaluable for people struggling with their mental health. Instead, many autistic people are faced with peer rejection, bullying, isolation, or abuse.

Autistic people often stay with a certain idea, emotion, or thought that they have experienced. They may re-experience the same emotion or repeat the same behaviour multiple times. This means that autistic people can end up in repetitive loops of hurtful experiences, mistreatment by others, and negative thoughts about themselves. It can be hard to break free from these cycles and discover more positive thoughts and ways of thinking.

For young people with autism, the changes they experience during adolescence can be particularly challenging. Young autistic people may find it hard to understand ever-more-complex social rules and the inner workings of friendship groups. They may become increasingly aware that they do not ‘fit’ in while longing for companionship more and more. Eating disorders, which usually develop during early adolescence, also disproportionately affect autistic people.

Friendship and Support

Reaching out for support can be difficult for young people on the autistic spectrum. Seeking help is a social skill that requires communicating feelings, needs, or experiences.

If a young autistic person does ask for help, they may express their feelings differently to other young people. Autistic people are sometimes unable to identify and understand their emotions, a phenomenon called alexithymia. Instead, they may describe an emotion by explaining a physical situation that makes them feel a certain way. For example, they might communicate a sense of despair as “the feeling of being on a very long path, far away from home, and not having the energy to take another step”.

One important step in helping autistic people with suicidal thoughts or ideation is to listen to what they are saying when they do reach out for support. Understanding the different ways that autistic people may communicate, think, and experience the world can help an autistic person feel comfortable and able to express their feelings in a way that makes sense to them. While past experiences of rejection may discourage autistic people from asking for support, positive social experiences of acceptance and responsiveness can encourage them.

Unfortunately, a lot of young autistic people’s social interactions strengthen their sense that they do not fit in the world. Valuing autistic people as humans that matter can help them to feel appreciated, loved, and part of the community. Treating everyone with genuine care and attention, regardless of whether they have difficulties communicating, take things literally, or show repetitive behaviours, instils an invaluable sense of belonging.

Suicide Prevention

If you are feeling suicidal, there are people who would like to help. You could talk to a friend, family member, or someone else you trust about your feelings. You can also call a phone line for confidential support:

  • Samaritans – call 116 123
  • Papyrus (for people under 35) – call 0800 068 4141

While seeing a doctor can feel stressful, it’s a step towards caring for yourself. Doctors may be able to help you to feel better about parts of your life that feel bad right now.

Supporting Autistic People With Suicidal Thoughts

If you think that an autistic person might be thinking about suicide, the best thing you can do is to ask. Listen carefully to what they have to say without judgement. Try to remain calm during the conversation and encourage them to express how they feel or what they are experiencing.

Thoughts and feelings about suicide may look different in autistic people to other people. It’s important to take any signs of suicidal thinking seriously, no matter how they present. Always believe someone who says that they are suicidal and see how you can help.

The Wave Clinic – Specialist Mental Health Support for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist mental health support for young people, dedicated to their unique needs. Our programs provide a safe and supportive environment where young people can heal, grow, and be themselves. 

We believe that every young person deserves effective mental health care that gives them the chance to flourish in life. Our experienced team understand the ways that neurodiversity can affect a young person’s experience of life and their responses to treatment. Our centre offers a recovery journey of acceptance and care where young people can discover their strengths and plan for the future.

If you have any questions about our programs, contact us today. We’re here to support you.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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