The suicide epidemic among high functioning persons with autism

What do you think the most common cause of premature death is among adults of typical or high intelligence with autism spectrum disorders? It’s suicide.

A large study was recently published in the British Journal of Psychiatry that examined the risk of death among the 27,122 persons diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders in Sweden when compared to age-matched controls. One significant finding from the study is that on average, persons with autism die sixteen years sooner than would be anticipated.  The finding we’ll examine more closely is that adults with autism and no intellectual disability are over nine times more likely to commit suicide when compared to their age-matched peers. Unlike the general population, in which men are significantly more likely to commit suicide than women, women with autism were at higher risk of suicide in this study than men.

Last month’s study isn’t the only signal that persons with autism are especially vulnerable to suicide.

  • A study of 10-14 year-olds with autism reported that 70% of kids with autism also had at least one mental health disorder such as anxiety, ADHD or depression, and 41% had at least two comorbid mental health disorders. Of those with ADHD, 84% received a second comorbid diagnosis.
  • Kids with autism were 28 times more likely to experience suicidal ideation than age-matched peers without autism in this study.
  • In a study of 374 adults with Asperger’s Disorder, 66% of 367 respondents self-reported suicidal ideation, 127 (35%) of 365 respondents self-reported plans or attempts at suicide, and 116 (31%) of 368 respondents self-reported depression. Adults with Asperger’s syndrome were nearly ten times as likely to report lifetime experience of suicidal ideation than individuals from a general UK population sample, and more prone to suicidal ideation than people with one, two, or more medical illnesses, or people with psychotic illness.

Why might suicide represent such an enormous problem among high-functioning persons with autism spectrum disorders?

They’re more likely to experience social isolation and lack social supports. In the fall of 2014, we shared this anonymous post from a college student describing her experience of trying to attend church as a person with autism. Imagine how the challenges she describes would impact her day to day life outside of church.

High-functioning kids with autism are significantly more likely to become victims of bullying when compared to their peers with autism and intellectual disability. It’s become socially inappropriate to ridicule persons with an obvious disability…less so when the disability isn’t so obvious.

They’re more likely to experience difficulties with executive functioning that may translate into a greater risk of acting upon suicidal impulses, more difficulty employing effective problem-solving skills and more difficulty self-regulating emotions. Learn more here about the challenges persons face with executive functioning challenges.

Their propensity to become very fixated on specific thoughts or ideas may intensify suicidal thoughts, or result in more difficulty letting go of feelings of hopelessness when they occur.

What can individual Christians and the church as a whole do to be of help?

Become advocates for better research into specific treatments for mental health conditions that commonly occur among persons with autism spectrum disorders. Persons with autism often have lower response rates and more adverse effects from treatments for common mental health conditions compared to the general population.

Make our churches “bully-free” zones. In my experience working with kids and teens with autism spectrum disorders, there are no greater challenges in getting a kid with autism engaged at church than a personal experience of having been bullied by kids from church.  Here’s a video from two of our former colleagues (Katie Wetherbee and Rebecca Hamilton) on strategies for preventing bullying at church…

Consider the challenges someone who struggles with social communication might face in seeking to become more engaged at your church. Here’s an earlier post in which we look at the challenges someone might facein attending church who has difficulty picking up on body language or the meaning behind the tone and inflection of speech.

Be intentional about making the environments in which we “do church” more “sensory-friendly” for all persons, including persons with autism spectrum disorders. We wrote a post last year in which we described a number of challenges persons with sensory processing differences (common among kids and adults with autism) encounter when they seek to attend church.

Carlyle King (pictured at right) is a friend of our ministry who has written about some of the challenges he has faced finding acceptance in the church. Carlyle shared the best advice I’ve heard for churches looking to share Christ’s love with persons with autism…

“Reach out and reconnect with our missing parts. Help them find that place where they honor God by functioning as they were made. Recognize that, if they don’t seem to fit, you may be the part needing adjustment.”

Editor’s note: Here’s a great summary publication from Autistica on the urgency of addressing early death among persons with autism spectrum disorders as a public health concern.