Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 10th to 16th May, and is an important platform relevant to the campaign for better support and understanding for autistic people. 

Autistic people are still not getting the help they need which is having devastating consequences on their mental health.

The waiting time for an autism diagnosis in the UK can be longer than a year, leaving the autistic person and his/her family feeling confused and unable to access the right help. This can lead to serious issues such as depression, rejection and social isolation, all of which are more common among autistic people than in the general population, and need to be addressed quickly and appropriately.

Not only can these conditions affect the person's education and employment experiences but also their wellbeing. Autistic adults are 9 x more likely to die from suicide than non-autistic adults.

This is as tragic as it is preventable; if autistic people and their families could just receive the help they desperately need and deserve.

We speak to researcher Mirabel Pelton, who has been working with the Autism Research Centre, and is committed to understanding the mechanisms of suicidal thoughts and behaviours amongst autistic people. Here Mirabel presents her latest project.

INTERPERSONAL THEORY OF SUICIDE

The interpersonal theory of suicide is one of the most prominent explanations for why someone decides to take their own life. It is based on the premise that, fundamentally, we as humans are evolutionarily wired to cling to life.

For someone to have the mindset and desire to take their own life, two things need to have happened: 

  1. A person needs to feel as if they were a burden to others
  2. A person needs to feel as if they are alone, or that they do not belong in this world

For them to undertake a suicide attempt, they would need to experience this desire to die but also:

  1. A person needs to have the physical capacity to die by suicide - i.e. the theory argues that this develops through exposure to painful and frightening experiences

So, does this explain why suicide is more common in autistic people than in the general population?

Autism and suicide

Evidence suggests autistic people are at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and the act of suicide. The research team at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, has been looking into this issue for a few years, and has found that 66.2% of people clinically diagnosed with autism have thought about suicide, and that 34.7% have planned or attempted it (Cassidy et al. 2014). 

However, no studies have explored exactly why there is such a strong link. There is an indication that this might be because the experience of mental health problems, bullying, loneliness and other social difficulties are widespread among autistic people. Still, a direct link has never been made.

Without a clear explanation as to why so many people think about suicide, let alone act on this thought, our societies cannot take tangible evidence-based actions to prevent it.  

So why are autistic people more at risk?  

Our research worked with 695 autistic and non-autistic people who completed a survey of scientifically designed questionnaires that asked about their mental health, whether they felt like a burden or felt lonely or alienated and asked them if they had ever thoughts about or attempted suicide in the past.  

Autistic people reported far more frequent feelings that they don’t belong in the world and that they are a burden on others, and many also reported they had suffered from depression. More autistic people than non-autistic people were more likely to have experienced suicidal thoughts or made suicide attempt.

This is crucial as it suggests that promoting inclusion and independence for autistic and non-autistic people is integral to reducing suicide rates.

However, more research is needed as we found that the connections between these experiences were weaker in autistic people than they were in non-autistic people.  This could suggest that other experiences may be more strongly connected with suicide in autistic people.  Understanding this will be vital to reduce suicide rates.        

You can read more about the research here. 

Specifically, we can work to reduce two of the feelings autistic people can have that could lead to suicide:

  1. The feeling that they are a burden to others: reduce by encouraging education and employment, increasing people's self-esteem, and reducing those barriers that prevent them from being independent. 
  2. The feeling that they do not belong in this world: reduce by increasing social belonging and helping autistic people gain the social skills they need to socialise and build relationships.

More research is needed to continue this work and ultimately save lives. We hope to carry out more studies of this nature; in the meantime, it is encouraging that there are immediate things we can do to improve the lives of autistic people.

A significant step would be continuing to address different environments in places where autistic people need access, such as public services, helplines, websites, shops, places of worship etc. If autistic people were made to feel more welcome and comfortable there, it would increase their confidence and reduce the chances of them regarding themselves as a burden, or of not belonging. 

Please help us fund more research projects like this one if you can and help us change the general preconceptions of autism and autistic people - please donate today. Thank you. 

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Mirabel Pelton is a part-time doctoral researcher at Coventry University working within the Mental Health in Autism Group led by Dr Sarah Cassidy.  Mirabel undertakes innovative research in partnership with autistic people to explore how the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide may help us understand and address high rates of suicide in autistic people.  Her work has been published in high impact academic journals and cited in international policy briefs such as the US Inter-Agency Co-ordinating Committee on Autism.  Mirabel's research has been recognised for its methodological rigour and impact through the award of the 'Rising Researcher 2020 Award' by PsyPAG (the post-graduate affairs group of the British Psychological Society).  Mirabel's previous research explored the impact of autistic characteristics on symptoms and outcomes in individuals experiencing psychosis.  Her research is financially supported by Coventry University, Coventry City of Culture, PsyPAG and Funds for Women Graduates.  Mirabel is a social scientist and linguist by academic background and had previous careers in international development and as a chef.  She is an adoptive mother of three and a grandmother.  

 

https://belong.coventry.domains

Twitter:  @MiraPel1