The study was announced on March 11, 2013 and was published in the January issue of “Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.” It is the first broad age, large scaled, and IQ range study of its kind.
"We were looking at suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among children with autism versus those that didn't have autism," said Angela Gorman, assistant professor of child psychiatry, Penn State College of Medicine. "What we found is that there were some risk factors that were much more greatly associated with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than others."
Parents provided the data that researchers used to analyze the rates of autistic children who think about or try to commit suicide.
The study researched 791 children with autism, 186 typical children and 35 depressed non-autistic children who were 1 to 16 years of age.
Researchers also looked at achievement and cognitive abilities, children 10 years old or older, socioeconomic status, and gender. The data was divided into four demographic groups: African American, Asian, Hispanic, and white.
The researchers also looked at behavioral and psychological problems, and the impact of bullying and teasing on the participants. "Out of those kids, almost half of them had suicidal ideation of attempts," said Gorman. "That was pretty significant."
- Parents rated their children with autism as having a 28 times greater risk for thinking about or attempting suicide than typical children
- Data on gender differences showed that twice the number of males contemplated suicide, while there were no significant differences in the rates of suicide attempts
- Autistic children with a parent in a managerial or professional position had a 10 percent rate of suicidal contemplation or attempts, while the rate was 16 percent for children whose parents had other occupations
- Hispanic and African American children had a 33 percent and 24 percent rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts while whites had a 13 percent rate and Asians were at 0 percent
- Suicide contemplation and attempts were three times greater in children 10 years of age or older compared to younger children
- 71 percent of the children studied had contemplated or attempted suicide
- Parents identified 77 percent of the children with autism as being depressed, and researchers found that depression was the strongest single predictor of suicide contemplation and attempts
- Children with autism who did not have behavioral or mood problems, were not impulsive, or fell into certain demographic groups were unlikely to contemplate suicide. In this group, 97 percent did not have mood dysregulation, 95 percent were not depressed, and 93 percent did not have behavioral problems
- Cognitive ability or IQ had little effect on rates of suicide contemplation and attempts, so low-functioning and high functioning participants had similar results
Gorman says that researchers want to do the study again and add a “"screening tool that can help us better rule out some of these issues and partition out some of these factors." Researchers may replicate the study with a more diverse minority population and broader range of socioeconomic status and look at the family history of suicide, negative life events, and neurochemical and biological variables.
Gorman suggests that parents of autistic children to look for signs of abnormal emotions or behavior, seek early intervention programs and professional help, and build up protective factors such as a supportive family.