THURSDAY, March 21 (HealthDay News) -- Children with autism may
have a higher-than-average risk of contemplating or attempting
suicide, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that mothers of children with autism were much
more likely than other moms to say their child had talked about or
attempted suicide: 14 percent did, versus 0.5 percent of mothers
whose kids didn't have the disorder.
The behavior was more common in older kids (aged 10 and up) and
those whose mothers thought they were depressed, as well as kids
whose moms said they were teased.
An autism expert not involved in the research, however, said the
study had limitations, and that the findings "should be interpreted
One reason is that the information was based on mothers'
reports, and that's a limitation in any study, said Cynthia
Johnson, director of the Autism Center at Children's Hospital of
Johnson also said mothers were asked about suicidal and
"self-harming" talk or behavior. "A lot of children with autism
talk about or engage in self-harming behavior," she said. "That
doesn't mean there's a suicidal intent."
Still, Johnson said it makes sense that children with autism
would have a higher-than-normal risk of suicidal tendencies. It's
known that they have increased rates of depression and anxiety
symptoms, for example.
The issue of suicidal behavior in these kids "is an important
one," Johnson said, "and it deserves further study."
Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental brain
disorders that hinder a child's ability to communicate and interact
socially. They range from severe cases of "classic" autism to the
relatively mild form called Asperger's syndrome.
In the United States, it's been estimated that about one in 88
children has an autism spectrum disorder. This week, the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised that prevalence
to as high as one in 50 children.
The new findings, reported in the journal
Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, are based on surveys
of nearly 800 mothers of children with an autism spectrum disorder,
35 whose kids were free of autism but suffered from depression, and
nearly 200 whose kids had neither disorder. The children ranged in
age from 1 to 16, and the autism spectrum disorder cases ranged in
Non-autistic children with depression had the highest rate of
suicidal talk and behavior, according to mothers -- 43 percent said
it was a problem at least "sometimes."
Among children with autism spectrum disorders, those with
depression symptoms were at greatest risk of suicidal talk or
attempts. Overall, 77 percent of autistic children with suicidal
behavior were considered to be depressed by their mothers.
The results highlight the fact that children with autism
spectrum disorders suffer from a range of issues other than the
classic autism symptoms, said Angela Gorman, one of the study's
"Sometimes these other things get overshadowed by the [autism spectrum disorder] symptoms themselves," said Gorman, an assistant professor of child psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine, in Hershey.
She suggested that parents pay close attention to what "normal
behavior" is for their child, so they can notice when a potential
red flag arises, such as an increase in sad moods or angry
"If you have any concerns, take your child in for an evaluation with a psychologist or psychiatrist," Gorman said.
Although the study tied having autism to more suicidal talk or
attempts, it didn't prove that these children are more likely to
Besides depression symptoms, bullying also seemed to be a risk
factor for suicidal behavior, the researchers found. Kids with
autism whose mothers said they were teased were three times more
likely to show such behavior.
And teasing was common, reported by 57 percent of mothers.
That's in line with a recent study that found nearly half of U.S.
teens with autism spectrum disorders have been bullied by other
Johnson agreed that these latest findings underscore the many
issues children with autism spectrum disorders face. "These are
vulnerable children," she said.
Johnson said she already talks with parents about the increased
risks of depression and anxiety associated with autism. As for
formal screening for suicidal behavior, that might be done in some
cases, she said. But there's no universal guideline on
Gorman said she thinks all children with autism spectrum
disorders should, at some point, be screened for suicidal behavior.
It would make sense, she said, to wait until children are older,
but there are no set-in-stone rules for how or when to screen.
And if your child is showing potential warning signs? Gorman
said therapy would depend on each child's situation, including how
severe the autism is and what co-existing problems -- such as
depression -- there might be.
Johnson said that if parents are worried about changes in their
child's behavior, they should bring it up to their doctor. But she
also stressed that mood or behavior shifts could have any number of
causes. "My advice to parents is, don't panic," she said.
Learn more about autism spectrum disorders from
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