Autism and Suicide

Jan 2018

Connecting the missing pieces

New York suicide lawyerIn 2016, one person in the United States died by suicide every 11.7 minutes. Parents, children, siblings and cousins are lost in droves on a daily basis, leaving questions in their wake. How could this have been prevented? What was the spark that caused it? While most victims suffered from a mental illness, the quality of their treatment and support network is often questioned. While not a mental illness, autism is a developmental disorder that comes with a startlingly high rate of suicide and suicidal ideation.

Depression appears to be more common in people with developmental disabilities. In a study focusing on children with autism spectrum disorders, the percentage of children (rated by parents through interviews) who were rated as “very often” contemplating or attempting suicide was twenty-eight times greater in autistic children than those with no developmental disorders.

The Law Offices of Skip Simpson knows how difficult it is to deal with the aftermath of suicide. The effects on family and friends are devastating, compounded by the fact that the death was more than likely preventable. We work to help loved ones find closure and justice in a system that has failed them, and to better understand the events and conditions surrounding their loss.

Suicidal tendencies can be difficult to spot

The trope of autistic people having little to no facial expression, reflecting little to no emotional depth, is a harmful stereotype. It turns out to be the opposite that is true for autistic people, which leads to an overlap of symptoms found in depression. Those with autism or spectrum disorders can feel emotion, and can also feel the lethargy, disconnection with the world and social withdrawal that are common symptoms of depression. This can lead to a patient with undiagnosed, ignored depression left to attempt to cope and understand their own illness – and the risks that come with it.

While depression is not the only mental affliction that can lead to suicidal tendencies, its symptoms cannot go ignored. A representative from Coventry University’s Center for Research in Psychology, Behavior and Achievement conducted a study on 365 adults diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, known as a high-functioning form of autism. 66 percent had contemplated suicide, and 35% had planned or attempted suicide. While the representative was quoted as saying “the journey from suicidal thoughts to suicidal behaviors might be quite different,” the journey is one well worth investigating, and such an investigation may save lives.

Common warning sides of suicide include:

  • Threats of self-harm
  • Active research into ways to die by suicide
  • Vengeful thoughts or behavior, or fits of rage
  • Acting reckless, as though the consequences of their actions don’t matter
  • Dramatic mood changes
  • Withdrawing from society, family and friends
  • Giving away treasured possessions

Anxiety, depression and stress are on the rise among Americans. Access to healthcare between the years 2006 and 2014 was on the decline for many, partially due to the Great Recession. People with mental health issues were less likely to receive help, making it harder for people with autism spectrum disorders to recognize and treat their depression and anxiety. They’ve been left vulnerable ever since.

Emotional Turmoil as a Symptom

The explosive moods that plague people with autism spectrum disorders and Asperger syndrome can be startling, frightening the sufferer as well as those around them. Up to 50% of adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders have considered death by suicide as an option, which is double the rate of the general population. It is reported that those newly diagnosed are the most at risk, having come from years of not understanding their condition and considering themselves outcasts. Emotional regulation can be difficult for many.

The struggle to fit in is a lifelong battle, often isolating those with autism and putting them at risk for depressive episodes. Emotional turmoil is common, and autistic people can suffer from a cognitive pattern that causes a fixation on a particular line of thought. This can easily turn into a hazard when that thought involves the end of life. Stress, isolation, undiagnosed depression and lack of access to care are all factors in a potentially deadly mess. “This is a community in distress”, said Katherine Gotham, the assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.

Suicidal thoughts are all too common in those with autism

Adults are not the only ones affected by both depression and autism. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in American teens, and those with autism are even more at risk. Studies have suggested they are 28 times more likely to plan out or attempt a suicide. A study published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders surveyed the mothers of 791 children with autism aged 1-16 years, 35 nonautistic depressed children and 186 neurotypical children. When asked about behavior problems, bullying or talk of suicide, children with autism were overall more at risk to talk about or attempt suicide. When compared with neurotypical children, the disparity was huge: 14% to 0.5%.

Roughly 75% of autistic children who talk about suicide had the disorder comorbid with depression. Class, race and age seemed to play a role as well. Males, those over the age of 10, those in low economic classes and Black and Hispanic children all seemed have an increased risk of talking about suicide. Over 50% of the group experienced bullying, an all too common factor in death by suicide, especially for the young who may already feel “atypical.” The study concluded that it was important to develop prevention techniques for, call attention to, and develop therapy practices for this group.

The life of an autistic child is no tragedy, but what they experience can certainly be tragic. Bullying can lead to isolation, or thoughts that one (no matter what age) does not “belong” in a society that classifies them as “abnormal” or somehow inferior or incapable of participating in life like a “regular” person would.

Autistic people eat, breathe, feel and have hopes and dreams for the future, the same as any other. They are also at risk for mental health issues that can have devastating consequences if not treated properly, or recognized.

Awareness is the solution

Diagnosis is a powerful remedy. Misdiagnosis, or ignorance of a potential patient’s complaints about their mental or cognitive state can be deadly. Healthcare providers should consider screening those with autism for depression, and pay attention to symptoms that could correlate with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A study involving 374 autistic adults found that the average age of diagnosis was 31. Without proper screening, diagnosis and treatment for spectrum disorders and depression, healthcare providers are putting an already vulnerable population at further risk for suicidal ideation, debilitating depressive episodes, and suicide attempts. It doesn’t have to be like this.

For every person thinking of death by suicide, there are thousands more struggling with repetitive thoughts and emotional turmoil that is a dangerous precursor. Autistic people are valued members of our families and communities, and fully capable of surviving trying times to lead a fulfilling life. They deserve the proper therapy and screening that can get them the help they need in times of crisis.

If you or someone you know has suffered a loss due to suicide, contact the Law Offices of Skip Simpson today.

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