Why People with Autism Have a High Suicide Risk–And What You Can Do to Prevent It
Suicide. The word itself has a dark, chilling ring to it. It’s a force that prematurely cuts off lives that would have been otherwise filled with unlimited possibilities. It goes against the will to survive, one of our strongest instincts—meaning the trouble facing a victim feels worse than death itself.
To them, there appears to be no better option. Rational thought is swallowed by hopelessness and despair. In sum, suicidal emotions are among the worst a person can ever feel; it seems everything has turned against them…even their minds.
That being said, suicide victims deserve our compassion, not our criticism.
There’s no denying the intense pain that the act brings loved ones. Tammy Laycock knows this firsthand. In mid-November 2015, a nightmare became her reality when Shane, her son with autism, committed suicide. He was bright, warm-hearted, and only 11 years old. Bullying and loneliness was what compelled him, she believes.
And he’s not the only one, sadly. According to one study, those on the autism spectrum are 28 times more likely to exhibit suicidal thoughts and behaviors than their non-depressed, neurotypical counterparts. So for the sake of Shane and all others with ASD who are struggling, it is vital that we talk about the risks of suicide in autism…even if it’s something we may not like talking about.
The Facts About Suicide in Autism
Unfortunately, suicide in the autism community has been severely understudied until very recently. But the research that does exist indeed suggests that those with autism—especially boys ages 10 and up—are more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completion. Some evidence indicates it’s more prevalent among those with milder autism (e.g. those with Asperger’s), but it can affect anyone anywhere on the spectrum.
Why Those on the Spectrum Are More Vulnerable
Overwhelmingly, those with autism commit suicide due to bullying and/or social isolation—things they are at high risk for, already. However, there are characteristics of autism that add to a person’s vulnerability.
For one, it’s not uncommon for those on the spectrum to have alexithymia, or a difficulty putting emotions into words. So they may struggle to express how they’re feeling. As a result, some cases of depression may fall under the radar. This would explain one study, in which suicidality was reported over twice as much as depression in ASD adults.
But that doesn’t mean depression is not there. With their difficulty pinning words onto emotions, those on the spectrum may describe their feelings in unconventional abstractions: one patient, for example, described himself as “all darkness.” This makes it ever more important for doctors to listen carefully to patients and read between the lines.
However, those on the spectrum may not immediately think to turn to someone for help—a vital step in suicide prevention. Talking to someone requires socialization, which can prove tricky for many with ASD. In addition, those on the spectrum may also struggle with emotional regulation and possess limited coping skills. So they may feel unable to turn to others as well as themselves for help.
Repetitive behaviors are a commonly-known symptom of autism, but perseveration or repetitive, inflexible thoughts can also be a characteristic. If those with autism think about committing suicide, it might stick with them, run through their heads again and again. This can increase risk of suicide attempts and completion.
Finally, those on the spectrum often experience co-morbid conditions such as depression and anxiety, which naturally makes them more vulnerable to suicide.
Signs to Look Out For
If your child exhibits any of these behaviors or attitudes, it’s time to take action.
- Any threat of suicide at all. NEVER assume your child doesn’t mean it. Even if they don’t plan to carry it out, the mere existence of a threat may be a not-so-hidden plea for help. Other statements with suicidal implications include “I wish I were dead,” “There’s no way out,” and “The world would be a better place without me.”
- Drastic changes in mood or behavior
- Changes in sleep patterns—either an increase or decrease in sleep.
- Withdrawal from family and friends to an extent that is not typical of your child
- Feelings of hopelessness, or that there’s no point to living
What to Do if You Suspect Your Child Is in Crisis
There is one piece of good news: suicide is preventable. As soon as you sense something is wrong, you can quickly take action to get your child the life-saving help they need.
- If your child is verbal, talk about it. Some believe that discussing suicide raises the risk of follow-through. This is a dangerous myth. Talking to your child may be the first step to a solution.
- Watch what you say. When someone is in crisis, they are at their absolute most vulnerable. If there were ever a time for sensitive, empathetic, gentle, loving language, it’s now. Listen carefully. Do not minimize their emotions. Give them affirmation. Repeat their words with different phrasing to ensure them you’re listening (for example: “So you feel that no one at school likes you?”).
- Seek professional help. Depending on the severity of your child’s suicidality, inpatient hospitalization or outpatient therapy is recommended.
- Prevent access to lethal (or potentially lethal) tools. Hide all those toxic cleaners. Keep medications—both prescription and OTC—under lock and key. Lock away guns. Tuck away knives. You get the drift.
- Learn QPR. This stands for Question, Persuade, Refer. Like the mental equivalent of CPR, QPR is a way to help a person in a suicidal crisis. Visit the QPR Institute to learn more.
- If bullying is happening, intervene. If your child is being bullied, talk to their teacher(s). If that doesn’t solve anything, talk to the principal. If that still doesn’t work, try the police. Yes, that’s serious, and no, it’s not overreacting. Remember: this is your child’s life we’re talking about here. It’s no small matter.
- Heavily supervise a person in crisis. For the individual’s own safety, do not leave them alone in a room (or anywhere else, for that matter).
If You Are Feeling Suicidal
If you’re considering ending your own life, there are caring people who can help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or visit I’m Alive if you would prefer to chat online. And please, for the sake of yourself and everyone who loves you, don’t give up hope.