Suicide ideation in adults with Asperger syndrome

CC BY-NC by WillBurton2

Two-thirds of adult participants newly diagnosed with Asperger syndrome have thought about suicide at some point during their life according to new research from Sarah Cassidy and colleagues* based at the University of Cambridge, UK. The authors added that a self-reported history of ever being diagnosed with depression also seemed to influence rates of suicide ideation or suicide plans / attempts.

Based on a study of nearly 400 adults attending a clinic specialising in the late (adult) diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, researchers analysed responses to various self-report questionnaires administered to patients prior to further clinical assessment. These questionnaires consisted of the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a measure designed to gauge the level of “cognitive-behavioural traits associated with autism”, and the Empathy Quotient “that quantifies individual differences in empathy”. Additional questions on whether a person had ever been diagnosed with depression, or whether they had ever felt suicidal and if so, planned or attempted suicide were also asked. Information on suicide ideation was compared with similar general population information to give an idea of how prevalent such thoughts are.

Sixty-six percent of participants reported a “lifetime experience of suicidal ideation”. Perhaps more worryingly, 35% of participants had a “lifetime experience of planned or attempted suicide”. Ideation was up to 9 times more likely for people with Asperger syndrome than population controls. Only those diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with a drug dependency issue were more likely to report suicide ideation according to population control data.

The authors conclude that further investigations are required in this important area of autism research. They also noted some limitations to their study such as a reliance on self-report accounting for a history of depression (some people in their cohort may for example, have been depressed but not labelled as depressed nor sought a diagnosis) and the sample findings potentially only being relevant to those reaching adulthood “without a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome”.

Suicide, whether thought about, attempted or completed, is a complicated process driven by a multitude of variables, often very individual to a person. Comorbid psychiatric issues such as depression and psychosis are known to elevate the risk of suicide, as is the issue of social exclusion / alienation. Many of these factors have been discussed in the research literature as being pertinent to some cases of autism. Alongside, there is also a growing recognition on a role for more biological factors also being potentially implicated in suicide or its influencing factors. The growing literature looking at vitamin D deficiency and depression for example, may provide some alternative avenues for exploration particularly in light of high levels of vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency in cases of autism. Similarly, the literature on the use of lithium as a potential preventative aid to suicide in the presence of mood disorders may also offer some help for those at increased risk of such an outcome.


* Cassidy S. et al. Suicidal ideation and suicide plans or attempts in adults with Asperger’s syndrome attending a specialist diagnostic clinic: a clinical cohort study. Lancet Psychiatry. 2014. June 25.

Read more about this study here: