New study finds a surprising link between suicide and autism

A high rate of those who died by suicide may have had undiagnosed autism, Researchers from Nottingham University found.

Depression (illustrative) (photo credit: ING IMAGE)
Depression (illustrative)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE)

Troubling research by a team from Nottingham University finds a high percentage of people who died by suicide may have had an undiagnosed case of autism. Study authors urge for earlier diagnosis and custom support for suicide prevention.

The perils of undiagnosed autism 

This is the first ever research to investigate the relationship between suicide in the United Kingdom and autism, a lifelong developmental condition. Researchers analyzed a total of 372 coroner’s reports inspecting people who took their own life. The team also conducted interviews with family members of the deceased. The findings were published on February 15, 2022, in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The researchers 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.

 Demonstration in Tel Aviv to increase budget for people with autism over 21 years of age. (credit: HANNAH BROWN) Demonstration in Tel Aviv to increase budget for people with autism over 21 years of age. (credit: HANNAH BROWN)

Previous research by the same researchers has shown that up to 66% of autistic adults have thought about taking their own life, and 35% have attempted suicide. Earlier research has also found that both diagnosed autistic people and those with elevated autistic traits are more vulnerable to mental health problems, suicidal thoughts, and behaviors. The new research goes a step further by examining Coroner’s records related to people who have ended their own life.

A high sense of urgency

The researchers noted that there are many barriers to receiving an autism diagnosis, including limited availability of diagnostic services, leading to long waiting lists. 

Lead researcher Dr. Sarah Cassidy remarked: “Many adults in the UK find it very difficult to obtain an autism diagnosis and appropriate support post-diagnosis. Our study shows that undiagnosed autistic people could be at increased risk of dying by suicide. It is urgent that access to an autism diagnosis and appropriate support post-diagnosis is improved. This is the top autism community priority for suicide prevention, and needs to be addressed immediately by commissioners of services and policymakers.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen added: “Even a single suicide is a terrible tragedy for the person and a traumatic loss for their families and friends. Suicide rates are unacceptably high in autistic people and suicide prevention has to be the number one goal to reduce the worrying increased mortality in autistic people. Autistic people on average die 20 years earlier than non-autistic people, and two big causes of this are suicide and epilepsy. We published the preliminary data on elevated suicide rates back in 2014 as a wake-up call to governments, and yet nothing has been done.”