The hidden danger of suicide in autism | Spectrum | Circa August 8, 2018

Many people with autism entertain thoughts of suicide and yet show few obvious signs of their distress. Some scientists are identifying risks — and solutions — unique to autistic individuals.

Nearly every Sunday since he was 7, Connor McIlwain had panicked about going to school the following day.

The noise of barking dogs or crying babies, the demands of school and the constant fear of being exposed to one of his phobias was a lot for Connor to handle. Diagnosed with autism at age 3, he would get so upset at school that sometimes he would run into the street; on at least one occasion, he narrowly escaped being hit by a car.

Connor’s mother, Lori McIlwain, recorded one of his Sunday-night tantrums when he was 10 to share with his doctor. “Poof me away. Poof me away,” Connor pleads in the audio clip, his voice strained. “I want to leave school forever. Throw me away forever; I really want to go away forever.” […]

By Cheryl Platzman Weinstock


“I think part of the problem is that we only see things we’re paying attention to.

“Until very recently, we didn’t expect to see it, so we didn’t see suicidality in patients with [autism]; it just wasn’t on our radar.”

Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University

Clinicians may wrongly assume that people on the spectrum don’t have complicated emotions, or may discount their outbursts.

These children feel a normal range of emotions as other children, but [they] don’t do it in a typical way, and they’re not necessarily taken as seriously because they have a wide range of emotions showing already.

”Doctors also misinterpret self-harm — a classic warning sign for suicide in the general population — as a part of autism.

Paul Lipkin, director of the Interactive Autism Network at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

The hurts of bullying and social rebuffs may build up over time: Two out of three people diagnosed with autism as adults reported they have contemplated suicide at some point in their lives, according to a large study published in 2014.

These adults “had been without support or understanding of autism for a long time,” says Sarah Cassidy, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham in the U.K.

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