Suicide and Adults With Asperger’s Syndrome

Suicide in Adults with Asperger's
The rate of suicide among adults with Asperger’s in increasing. We can all help by understanding what causes this and what we can do about it.

Suicide is a difficult topic to discuss. However, studies indicate that attempted and completed suicides among adults with Asperger’s have increased recently, and there is growing concern that ignoring, even minimizing this problem, will only heighten the future risk of suicide for adults on the spectrum.

In this article, I want to show why suicide in adults with Asperger’s is concerning, and also to lay out an argument for prioritizing the assessment of suicide risk among those who know and work with these adults.

Asperger’s Syndrome Facts

Several large studies of suicide among individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a classification including Asperger’s, indicate the following:

  • As recently as 2017, approximately 0.17% of those on the spectrum committed suicide, compared to 0.11% in the general population.
  • This larger percentage of suicides among those on the spectrum was caused by the fact that suicides in females with ASD was over three times higher than in females without ASD.
  • Indications are that women on the spectrum who died by suicide are less likely to have received an ASD diagnosis and thus may not have been able to access the care they needed.
  • Females with ASD often face unique challenges, including sexual abuse, social difficulties, conflicts between ASD traits and feminine identity, and the need to “camouflage” or cover up their ASD symptoms, thus increasing their risk for suicide.
  • Having a job or enrollment in adult education does not necessarily lower the risk of suicide in either men or women.
  • Younger ASD adults are at greater risk of suicide than those who are older, perhaps due to the particular challenges they face, such as identity formation and social difficulties in the transition to early adulthood.
  • About two-thirds of adults with Asperger’s, male and female, report having suicidal thoughts, and one third report suicide attempts or plans.
  • Adults who rate their own ASD traits high are more likely to have suicidal thoughts or make suicide attempts than those who have mild traits.
  • The trait of social communication appears to predict suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts more so than pragmatic language difficulties, repetitive behavior, and sociability. Those with a more limited ability to communicate effectively are most at risk.
  • Depression appears to account for about one-third of the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
  • Adults with ASD have double the rate of depression and anxiety than adults who do not have ASD. About 1 in 56 adults with ASD attempt suicide, compared to 1 in 313 non-ASD adults.

Why Do Adults With Asperger’s (ASD) Attempt Suicide?

This is a complicated question worthy of in-depth analysis, and I plan to write more about it in an upcoming article. For now, let me say this:

Typically, adults with ASD are motivated to interact with others but they become socially isolated because of their difficult communicative style. They act odd and keep a distance from others, even people they know quite well. They turn to others only to satisfy their own needs. They have difficulty understanding other people’s needs, act self-centered, and appear to lack empathy. Their personal interests are narrowly focused and they tend to overreact to changes in their routine activities.

As a result, they are prone to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and social isolation. In many cases, adults who attempt suicide do so because of their inability to cope with these challenges, along with the difficulty they have understanding and regulating their emotions, and the trouble they have reaching out effectively for help from others.

Clearly, what is needed most by adults with Asperger’s (ASD) who face the risk of suicide is help, help recognizing their risk and help accessing the resources needed to address that risk. It is a small matter to ask of anyone who cares, and we should all try our best to help when the situation calls for it.

You can read more about this topic here.

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question or schedule an appointment, please call 415-922-1122.