Updated: Nov 8
Suicide is one of the biggest causes of death for autistic people and is a huge factor in our shorter life expectancy. Between 7.3% and 15% of people who have been hospitalised for attempted suicide are also diagnosed autistic. This is much higher than the 1% rate of autism diagnosis in the general UK population. When researchers also took into account those who didn’t have a formal diagnosis but did have ‘elevated autistic traits’, they discovered that this may account for an alarming total of 41% of people who died by suicide. Another study found that 66% of autistic adults have experienced suicidal thoughts, whether they had made an attempt or not.
Marginalisation and Oppression
These shocking statistics are not due to an inherent risk of suicide in autistic people. Instead, it is down to the difficulties of existing as an autistic person in our society, whether identified or not. The world is not designed with autistic people in mind. From an early age, we are taught to suppress our natural ways of behaving and communicating and we soon learn that our way of experiencing the world is not acceptable to others. We learn to hide our distress as other people dismiss our suffering and shame us for daring to express our needs.
Autism Diagnostic Process
It is incredibly difficult to be officially recognised as autistic (via formal diagnosis) due to a lack of funding and long waiting times. Added to this, professionals often have poor knowledge due to outdated training based on stereotypes and poor quality research. In addition, the diagnostic criteria for autism are based on external observations of an autistic person in distress. This means if you do manage to get a diagnosis, you must have already experienced significant trauma over a long period of time.
Those of us who are recognised as autistic are told that we are ‘disordered’ or have a ‘condition’. There is very little post-diagnosis support available and what does exist is often designed to train us to behave in neurotypical ways. This further harms us because our brains and nervous systems are not designed to work like that.
If people perceive us to be ‘high functioning’ we don’t receive any support and we’re expected to just get on with it. They don’t see how exhausted we are from trying to conform to neurotypical standards. On the other hand, if others perceive us to be ‘low functioning’ we are considered to be incompetent and incapable of making decisions about our own lives, and our agency and autonomy are taken away.
Those of us who are not identified as autistic don’t fare any better. We are told we are weak, lazy, stupid, selfish, over dramatic, and over sensitive. We are always either too much or not enough. This begins in childhood and continues throughout our lives. Over time we learn to keep quiet and hide our suffering because it is inconvenient to others. We try our best to fit in and meet others’ expectations, at the expense of our own mental health, resulting in autistic burnout.
Thanks to the past work of certain large autism charities and poor research led by non-autistic ‘experts’, autism is surrounded by stigma. Negative stereotypes mean we are seen as less than human, a person with a piece missing, disordered, and in need of fixing or curing. Research focuses more on the ‘causes’ of autism than on improving the quality of life for autistic people.
When considering all this, it’s not hard to understand why so many of us experience suicidal thoughts or attempt to take our own lives. Why would we want to keep on living in a world that doesn’t want us to exist?
Coping with Suicidal Thoughts
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts the most important thing is to keep yourself safe. This could mean telling a trusted person how you are feeling, or going to a safe place. This could be somewhere you can get help, or it could just mean sitting in the park so that you are not alone. You can also try to distract yourself to take your mind off your thoughts. You may want to make a hope box or hope book that you can use to support yourself whenever you are struggling.
Suicidal Thoughts: Support for Parents
The charity Rethink Mental Illness has advice on how to cope with suicidal thoughts.
Support for Children & Young People
Young people can also contact the helplines listed above, as well as Childline, or call 999 or go to A&E.
Long Term Support
Once you are feeling safer, you may need long term support to help you move forward. The support you need will depend on your individual circumstances, and there are many options available, such as:
charity helplines and websites
informal support from family and friends
At Autistic Parents UK, we offer a range of peer support services, where you can get in contact with other autistic parents who will understand what you are going through.
Taking a broader view, to reduce the high rates of suicide in autistic people, we really need acceptance from other people and society as a whole. We need to be allowed to exist as we are instead of being treated like we are broken or less than, and to embrace our autistic identity. Autistic suicide is a social justice issue, not a medical problem. The Autistic Rights Movement and Neurodiversity Movement have done a lot to improve equality, respect, and inclusion for autistic people, but there is still much work to be done in this area. If autistic people felt welcome and wanted in the world, far fewer autistic people would end up feeling like suicide was their only option.
Zoe is a late identified autistic parent to 2 unschooling neurodivergent children, writing about autistic identity and culture. Find her on Medium https://medium.com/@zoewilliams_2443 and Mastodon https://cupoftea.social/@rekindled.