Children with Autism at Greater Risk for Suicide

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Children who have autism may be at greater risk for thinking about or attempting suicide than children without the condition, according to a new study.

Researchers looked at data for about 1,000 children, including 791 kids with an autism spectrum disorder, 186  non-autistic children without a mental condition and 35 non-autistic children with depression. Parents gave numerical ratings describing whether and how frequently their children had contemplated or attempted suicide.

Children with autism were 28 times more likely to be rated as contemplating or attempting suicide "sometimes" to "very often," compared with children who didn't have autism, according to the researchers. However, children with depression were three times more likely to receive these ratings compared to children with autism.

The researchers found a higher risk for children with autism who were black or Hispanic, at least 10 years old, male or from families with lower income levels. "That was probably the most important piece of the study," Angela Gorman, an assistant professor of child psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine who worked on the research, said in a statement.

In fact, 71 percent of children characterized by all four of those factors had contemplated or attempted suicide. And having more of those four characteristics increased the likelihood that a child had thought about or attempted suicide.

Gorman suggested that parents of children with autism pay close attention to their child's normal behavior and emotions, and work at helping their child develop communication and social skills early in life.

Among children with autism, suicidal contemplation was twice as common in males, although there was no difference between the sexes in suicide attempts, the researchers said.

Depression and behavior problems were highly linked with suicide contemplation and attempts, as were being teased or bullied.

"Out of those kids, almost half of them had suicidal ideation of attempts," Gorman said of the bullied or teased children. "That was pretty significant."

Depression was the strongest single predictor of suicide contemplation or attempts in children with autism. In those children with autism whose parents considered them depressed, 77 percent had contemplated or attempted suicide.

Children with autism who did not have mood or behavioral problems and did not fall into the high-risk categories were very unlikely to have contemplated or attempted suicide, according to the researchers.

Neither cognitive ability nor IQ had much effect on whether or not children with autism contemplated or attempted suicide.

The results were published in the January issue of the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. The advocacy groups Autism Speaks and the Children's Miracle Network funded the study.

Pass it on: Children with autism may be more likely to think about or attempt suicide.

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Karen Rowan
Health Editor
Karen came to LiveScience in 2010, after writing for Discover and Popular Mechanics magazines, and working as a correspondent for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. She holds an M.S. degree in science and medical journalism from Boston University, as well as an M.S. in cellular biology from Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to becoming a journalist, Karen taught science at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill. for eight years.