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New Study Finds Autistic Women More Likely to Attempt Suicide

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

A new study published in the journal Psychological Medicine found autistic women are more likely to attempt suicide and siblings of autistic people are also at higher risk, highlighting the need for suicide prevention efforts across the autism community.

The study, led by researchers in Sweden, examined suicide data, including attempts and people who died by suicide, in more than 54,000 people on the spectrum between 1987 and 2013, and matched them with siblings, half siblings and cousins. These participants were then compared to a control group of neurotypical people. Led by researcher Tatja Hirvikoski, study results showed autistic people across the board are four times as likely to attempt suicide compared to the neurotypical population, and eight times as likely to die by suicide.

Because of the large sample size in this study, Hirvikoski and her colleagues were able to gain additional insight. Autistic women were more likely to have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide compared to males. This mimics trends in the neurotypical population — women are more likely than men to attempt suicide (though men die by suicide at higher rates).

For autistic women who also had an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis, their risk for attempting suicide nearly doubled. Approximately one in five autistic women with ADHD attempted suicide compared to 1 in 11 autistic men with ADHD. Autistic women with an intellectual disability were also more likely to attempt suicide — 1 in 13 women compared to 1 in 20 men.

“This indicates a risk of suicide attempts that is 10 times higher than among women in the general population,” lead author Hirvikoski told Healthcare-In-Europe. “In addition, the risk of completed suicide was even higher among these women, so this is a very worrying result.”

The current study also looked at suicide risk for the relatives of autistic people compared to neurotypical people to investigate if there is a genetic connection between suicidality and autism. Though no conclusion can definitively be drawn from this data, researchers did find siblings of autistic people were more likely to attempt suicide compared to the siblings of neurotypical people. In addition, half-siblings and cousins were also at a slightly higher risk when their family member was on the spectrum.

Previous studies on the risk of suicide among those on the spectrum also showed an increased risk, with autistic people at approximately 10 times the risk of making a suicide attempt. However, previous research has been inconclusive, especially in context with a rising suicide rate among all populations. This new study further highlights the need for more suicide prevention resources and mental health care in the autism community. The Autism and Suicide committee of The American Association of Suicidology and Common Ground currently offer a short guide that can help crisis workers support autistic callers/texters.

“Our analyses showed that the risk of suicide attempts and suicides was far higher among individuals with autism,” study author Henrik Larsson told Healthcare-In-Europe. “The results give us valuable information about risk factors and guidance for clinical activities.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Header image via diego_cervo/Getty Images

Originally published: August 8, 2019
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