PEOPLE who show characteristics of autism are more at risk of attempting suicide.
A Coventry University study found people who exhibited higher levels of autistic traits were more likely to try to end their lives because they felt they were excluded from society, were a burden on friends and family, and because they experienced depression.
Dr Sarah Cassidy, who supervised the research, said: “This is a shocking wake-up call for society, when a significant section of the population feel that they don’t belong in the world.
“As a society we urgently must do more to value neurodiversity. This could ultimately save lives.”
Previous research had already suggested a link between autistic people and an increased risk of suicide, but this was the first study to suggest those who had not been diagnosed with autism but had certain traits typical of autistic people were also more at risk of attempting suicide.
Academics say understanding how these factors were linked was vital in helping to reduce deaths by suicide – and that more research was needed.
The findings coincided with the launch of an appeal by UK charity Autistica calling on the autistic community to get directly involved in further research by signing up to its new autism research network, Discover – autistica.org.uk/take-part – which will link the local autistic community with the Coventry investigators as well as other UK research centres.
The Coventry University study – published in the journal Autism Research – involved 163 people aged between 18 and 30 who completed an online survey which asked a range of questions to establish the level at which they showed characteristics of autism, depression and suicidal behaviour.
Autistic traits include social and communication difficulties, attention to detail and the tendency to have narrow obsessive interests.
The academics used standard tests and a psychological model to investigate associations between autistic traits, depression, feelings of not belonging and of being a burden, and suicidal behaviour.
The academics say the model can be used to predict people who will exhibit suicidal behaviour – and once further developed could make a huge difference to creating effective assessment, support and treatment for people at risk of suicide.
The research was carried out by Mirabel Pelton as part of her thesis for her MSc Psychology at Coventry University. She is now working towards a PhD and is expanding her research on the topic.
Mirabel said: “These are life and death issues. Research to date has failed to understand the link between autistic traits and suicide but this study suggests that promoting social inclusion and independence could literally save lives.”
Dr Sarah Cassidy this week presented the findings to the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), a US federal advisory committee, at a meeting in Maryland.