Asperger's Syndrome Linked to Suicidal Thoughts

Laird Harrison

July 03, 2014

Adults with Asperger's syndrome are 9 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts compared with those in the general population, a new study shows.

"Our findings confirm anecdotal reports that adults with Asperger syndrome have a significantly higher risk of suicide in comparison to other clinical groups, and that depression is a key risk factor in this," said Sarah Cassidy, PhD, of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, the United Kingdom, in a media release.

The study was published online June 25 in the Lancet Psychiatry.

The study surveyed 374 individuals (256 men and 118 women) diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome as adults between 2004 and 2013 at the Cambridge Lifetime Asperger Syndrome Service clinic.

The researchers defined Aspberger's syndrome as "a subgroup on the autism spectrum, showing core symptoms in the absence of language delay or intellectual disability."

(The American Psychiatric Association formerly used the term "Asperger's disorder," but in 2013 it folded this diagnosis into the broader category of "autism spectrum disorder.")

The study showed that 66% of adults with Asperger's syndrome have suicidal ideation. Previous studies have shown that 17% of the general population and 59% of those with psychosis have such thoughts, the researchers said.

In addition, the new study showed that 35% of adults with Asperger's syndrome had planned or had attempted suicide during their lifetime.

Suicidal thoughts and behaviors were significantly more common in adults with Asperger's syndrome who had a history of depression.

Among adults with Asperger's syndrome, those with depression were 4 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts and were twice as likely to plan or attempt suicide, compared with individuals with Asperger's syndrome but who did not have history of depression.

A second risk factor for suicide plans or attempts was a higher level of autistic traits.

Adults with Asperger's syndrome often suffer from secondary depression, owing to social isolation, loneliness, social exclusion, lack of community services, underachievement, and unemployment, the researchers said.

But they added that appropriate support can alleviate this depression and reduce the risk for suicide.

"This study should be a wake-up call for the urgent need for high-quality services, to prevent the tragic waste of even a single life," said coauthor Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, also of the Autism Research Centre.

The study was funded by the Three Guineas Trust, the Baily Thomas Foundation, the Medical Research Council, NIHR-CLAHRCEoE, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT), and the Autism Research Trust. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Lancet Psychiatry. Published online June 25, 2014. Full text

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