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Suicide rates 'worryingly high' in autistic people

Written by Rebecca Burrows

Vikie with five of her children Credit: ITV News Central

We expect people with differently wired brains to fit into our world, and although they appear to be coping ok, they’re really in a state of high anxiety the whole time.

– Mother of six autistic children, Vikie Shanks

Vikie Shanks lives in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, with her seven children, six of whom are on the autistic spectrum. The seventh has severe dyslexia, and the youngest two also have cerebral palsy.

Alongside their condition, each child has also struggled with various mental health issues. They’ve had the support of their mum, who has had to bring them up on her own for the last ten years, as her husband Paul took his own life.

Paul had a number of complex mental health issues, but Vikie believes he was also on the autistic spectrum. She says, looking back, there were definite elements of autistic traits in his personality.

Vikie and her husband Paul Shanks Credit: Vikie Shanks

Vikie believes that one of the reasons an autistic person may feel suicidal is because the world around them does not always make sense to them.

The NHS describes autism as a condition which results in problems with communication and social interaction.

It is estimated that around 1 in every 100 people in the UK has autism. However, this number could be a lot higher as many autistic adults are undiagnosed.

Researchers from Coventry University looked into the issue of autism and suicidality. They found that two thirds of adults newly diagnosed with the condition had contemplated suicide. A third said they had planned or attempted to end their own life.

66%
Number of people newly diagnosed with autism reported having contemplated suicide
35%
Number of people newly diagnosed with autism who had planned or attempted to end their life
Vikie Shanks with her seven children Credit: Vikie Shanks

Dr Sarah Cassidy, who conducted the research alongside Newcastle University, said it is not clear why autistic people may feel suicidal.

She said it is an issue which remains poorly understood and that action is urgently needed to help those at risk:

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.

– Dr Sarah Cassidy, Coventry University

Autism research charity Autistica believes the issue of suicide in autism has been severely overlooked.

They produced a report last year which highlighted how autistic people are dying 16 years before their time, with leading causes of early death being suicide and epilepsy.

They are calling on the government, as well as the NHS, to tackle the issue.

In response, the Department of Health provided us with the following statement:

As part of the delivery of the Government’s autism strategy, we are bringing together experts from academia and the third sector to gain a better understanding, through research, of the gap in life expectancy in England between those with autism and the general population - and the most effective interventions to address the causes that lie behind this.

We are working with NICE to make sure that autistic people are accessing primary care services and working to create an autism register in each GP practice. This will enable primary care professionals to make appropriate adjustments to services and keep in touch with their autistic population.

We have asked local authorities to implement suicide prevention strategies by the end of this year, which take account of people with needs like autism. We have also sought a commitment from the NHS to take further action to reduce suicides of people in contact with mental health services, including those on the autism spectrum.

– Department of Health
Mirie, Lorie and Nikita are very positive about their autism Credit: ITV News Central

The following organisations can offer advice and support if you have been affected by any of the issues in this article:

  • The National Autistic Society is a charity which offers supports and aims to improve the lives of autistic people.
  • The Samaritans operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, if you want to talk to someone in confidence.
  • Mind is a mental health charity which has lots of information and support on various mental health problems.

Autistica has produced a leaflet on autism and mental health which you can view here.

They have also created an autistic friendly guide on mental health, which you can see below:

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