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Rates of suicide ‘worrying’ among patients with autism

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Suicide rates among people with autism in England have reached “worryingly” high levels, according to researchers.

Writing in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, they warned that the issue remained poorly understood and that action was urgently needed to help those most at risk.

“The journey from suicidal thoughts to suicidal behaviours might be quite different”

Sarah Cassidy

In particular, the highlighted that different approaches to risk assessment and treatment were probably needed for people with autism.

Dr Sarah Cassidy, from Coventry University, cited a study she led in 2014 that found 66% of 365 adults newly diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome reported contemplating suicide.

In the same study – the most recent research into suicidality in autism – 35% of the respondents said they had planned or attempted to end their own life, with 31% saying they experienced depression.

In addition, she highlights a 2016 population study in Sweden that had also concluded that suicide was a leading cause of premature death in people with autism spectrum disorder.

Dr Cassidy said: “What relatively little we know about suicidality in autism points to a worryingly high prevalence of people with the condition contemplating and attempting to take their own life.

“More concerning still, the small body of research that does exist exposes serious shortcomings in how prepared we are to intervene and provide effective support to those with autism who are most at risk of dying by suicide,” she said.

“There are significant differences, for example, in the risk factors for suicide in autism compared with the general population, meaning the journey from suicidal thoughts to suicidal behaviours might be quite different,” said Dr Cassidy.

University of Coventry

Rates of suicide ‘worrying’ among patients with autism

Sarah Cassidy

“The models we currently consider best practise for assessing and treating suicidality need to be rethought for those with autism, and policy adjusted accordingly so new approaches are reflected across services,” she noted.

Jon Spiers, chief executive of autism research charity Autistica, said: “National and local government, research funders and industry, as well as the NHS and service providers all have a responsibility to tackle the issue of suicide in autism.”

The warning comes in the same week that a lack of training and cuts in the number of learning disability nurses was highlighted.

Hospital staff often had difficulty communicating with children with autism and may need more training, stated the Royal College of Nursing.

Meanwhile, it said that cuts to community services and a significant drop in the number of learning disability nurses had left many without care outside of hospital.

Shortcomings in care, in both hospitals and community settings, were one of the key topics raised at the RCN’s annual children and young people’s nursing conference on Thursday.

Coventry and Newcastle universities are also this week running an international summit on suicide in autism – the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The aim is to develop recommendations for changes in government policy and practise that can be implemented quickly to reduce suicide in autism, and to decide on priorities for future research.

Dr Jacqui Rodgers, from Newcastle University, said: “This unique event is of huge importance.

“For the first time researchers and clinicians from the fields of autism and suicide research will come together, along with members of the autism community and those bereaved by suicide, to learn from each other and identify clinical and research priorities to address this urgent issue,” he said.

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