The risk of suicide is much higher in adults with a diagnosis of autism than in people without this diagnosis. Despite this risk, there are no suicide interventions specially designed for autistic people. In our study, we adapt an instrument for suicide prevention with autistic people and those who support them.

More than 6 in 10 autistic people have thought of suicide, more than 3 in 10 autistic people have attempted suicide, and nearly 8 in 10 autistic adults have a mental illness

Why are autistic people more likely to self-harm and commit suicide?

There are many things that put autistic people at risk for self-harm and suicidal thoughts and behavior. Some of these are part of who a person is. For example, many autistic people have “sticky thinking,” which means that they can focus on a particular train of thought. This can mean that suicide feels like the only way out.

However, many factors are due to the environment in which autistic people must function. Autistic people are often forced to change their innate autistic behavior in order to cope with a society that is geared towards non-autistic people. We call this “camouflaging,” and it can increase feelings of loneliness and unappropriation.

Also, people with autism often do not have access to adequate support because services are not tailored to their needs. This can make them feel hopeless. After all, autistic people are more likely to experience difficult life events that can increase the risk of attempting suicide.

Our studyAutism-adapted safety plans

Research on other types of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, shows that autistic people need changes to standard treatments to make them accessible and meaningful.

We have worked with autistic people and those who support them (such as friends, family, and healthcare professionals) to develop an autism-specific version of a commonly used intervention known as a safety plan. Safety plans are a tool for thinking about what might be helpful in a future crisis, and they have proven to be helpful among the general population.

Our Autism Adapted Safety Plan provides space to ponder warning signs of an impending crisis, internal coping strategies that might help, people and professionals you know and / or whom you can contact, and ways to make the environment safer.

It also has questions about how the autistic adult would like to be communicated in emergency situations and whether they would like to share the safety plan with people they trust. Now let’s find out if our autism-adapted safety plan is usable and useful for autistic adults.

An adult male psychotherapist or counselor interacts with a male client during a one-on-one therapy session.

© Christopher Ames / Getty Images / iStock

If you would like more information about the study or would like to participate, please visit our website.

Why is it important?

Research suggests that people at risk of suicide usually feel trapped in a moment of excruciating distress. We also know that these feelings often come and go. A safety plan adapted for autism could help autistic adults manage their difficult emotions and distract them from suicidal thoughts until they die.

There is still a great deal of silence about self-harm and suicide. People often fear that talking will “put ideas into someone’s head”. However, it’s okay to talk about self-harm and suicide! An autism-adapted safety plan could also be a useful way to help autistic adults have important conversations with people who support them.

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