Adults with Asperger’s syndrome ‘at higher risk of suicidal thoughts’

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In what is deemed the first large-scale clinical study of its kind, researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK suggest that adults who have Asperger’s syndrome are at much higher risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts than the general population.

The research team, led by Dr. Sarah Cassidy and Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre at the university, recently published their findings in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Asperger’s syndrome is a type of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) characterized by difficulties with communication, problems with social interaction and repetitive patterns of behavior. Unlike those with other ASDs, individuals with Asperger’s tend to have good cognitive and language skills.

According to the investigators, Asperger’s is frequently linked with depression, but very few studies have analyzed how the disorder affects an adult’s suicidal ideation – thoughts about committing suicide.

With this in mind, Dr. Cassidy, Prof. Baron-Cohen and their colleagues assessed 374 individuals in the UK who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult between 2004 and 2013.

All participants were required to complete a questionnaire that asked them to report their lifetime experience of depression, suicidal ideation and suicide plans or attempts. Rates of suicidal ideation among participants were then compared with the rates of suicidal ideation among the general UK population and patients with other psychosis.

Depression a ‘key suicide risk factor’

The researchers found that 66% of participants with Asperger’s reported suicidal ideation, compared with only 17% of the general population and 59% of patients with psychosis.

Depressed person
Asperger’s patients with a history of depression were four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and twice as likely to plan or attempt suicide than those without a history of depression, according to the researchers.

In detail, the team found that 66% of patients with Asperger’s had thought about committing suicide and of these, 35% had planned or attempted suicide during their lifetime.

According to the researchers, suicidal thoughts and behaviors were much more common among adults with Asperger’s who had a history of depression. Those with a history of depression were four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and twice as likely to plan or attempt suicide than Asperger’s patients without a history of depression.

Furthermore, the team found that adults with Asperger’s who had autistic traits were also more likely to plan or attempt suicide than those without these traits.

Dr. Cassidy notes that their findings support previous research indicating that adults with Asperger’s are at much higher risk of suicide than other clinical groups and that depression is a key risk factor in this.

Prof. Baron-Cohen adds:

“Adults with Asperger’s syndrome often suffer with secondary depression due to social isolation, loneliness, social exclusion, lack of community services, underachievement and unemployment.

Their depression and risk of suicide are preventable with the appropriate support. 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.”

The team says more detailed studies are warranted to better determine whether other factors – such as age of Asperger’s diagnosis or a family history of suicide and aggression – trigger suicidal ideation, plans or attempts among adults with the disorder.

The study was subject to limitations, according to the researchers. For example, it only included adults who had Asperger’s diagnosed in adulthood, therefore the researchers are unable to generalize their findings to those diagnosed with the condition in childhood.

Furthermore, the team points out that study participants self-reported their lifetime experience of depression, suicidal ideation and suicide plans or attempts, which may have led to an underestimation or overestimation of outcomes.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study published in BMC Psychiatry, which found that “alternative” teenagers – those who identify as belonging to goth, emo and punk subcultures – are almost seven times more likely to attempt suicide than other teenagers.