Being a teenager or a young adult can be challenging. This is the time in our lives that most of us struggle to come to terms with who we are and how we fit into our social network. It is common to feel rejected by our peers or even to feel somewhat depressed.
Do any of the following statements sound familiar?
“Be nice and the other kids will want to play with you.”
“Middle school is hard for everyone.”
“Don’t worry about not having a lot of friends in high school- you will make lots of friends in college.”
For young adults who have autism, these experiences are intensified. Young people who have autism experience difficulties in establishing and maintaining a positive self-image. The very definition of autism includes significant social challenges, and can also include challenges with emotional regulation. These two disability-related characteristics can be a deadly combination. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for young people and accounts for 13% of all deaths of people between the ages of 10 to 24 years old1. The suicide rate for young people with autism is even higher2. People who have autism can have difficulty with emotional regulation, so when they are sad, they can be extremely sad, and fail to remember that sadness is often a transient feeling. It is during these times of intense sadness that they can be at a greater risk for suicidal thoughts or behavior.
If you know a young person who has autism, you might be concerned about their risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior. It is essential to take proactive steps to increase their resiliency and to be aware of symptoms of suicidal thoughts and behavior.
Proactive Steps to Increase Resiliency
- Establish a daily check-in routine
- Focus on a positive trait or skill
- Establish a routine to notice and focus on positive self-talk
Seek Immediate Help if You Have Concerns
It is crucial to remember that suicidal thoughts and depression are treatable illnesses and not personal weaknesses. Seek help immediately if you have any concerns about the behavior of the person you know. National suicide hotlines are available 24 hours a day. Your doctor or local hospital can also connect you to resources in your area. Often parents or friends don’t seek help until it’s too late. They may be concerned that if they acknowledge the problem, the likelihood of suicide happening may increase. Or they may be concerned about being embarrassed if they are wrong. You can recover from embarrassment. There is no recovery from suicide.
A few, but not all, signs of depression and suicidal thoughts include:
- Changes in behavior
- Intense sadness/hopelessness
- Chronic tiredness/feelings of exhaustion
- Changes in sleep patterns, such as unable to sleep, too much sleep, etc.
- Loss of interest or skill in activities that they used to enjoy
Medical professionals can help you determine if a young person is depressed or at risk for suicidal thoughts or action. However, it is critical that you seek immediate help if you have the slightest concern.
April is autism awareness month. It’s a good time to think about the challenges experienced by young people who have autism and how we can help.
If you have an effective strategy you have used to support young people who have autism and increase their resiliency to life’s ups and downs, please share!
1.Eaton, D. K., Kann, L., Kinchen, S., Shanklin, S., Flint, K. H., Hawkins, J., . . . Chyen, D. (2012). Youth risk behavior surveillance-United States, 2011. MMWR Surveill Summ, 61(4), 1-162.
2. Raja, M., Azzoni, A., & Frustaci, A. (2011). Autism spectrum disorders and suicidality. Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health: CP & EMH, 7, 97.