New autism specific resource aims to reduce suicide rates

Tags Autism Mental Health Research

Posted 1 month ago by Anna Christian

Tailoring suicide prevention and awareness resources to people with autism and their support networks is vital, according to La Trobe University expert. [Source: Shutterstock]
Tailoring suicide prevention and awareness resources to people with autism and their support networks is vital, according to La Trobe University expert. [Source: Shutterstock]

Researchers from La Trobe University in Melbourne have launched a world first website targeting the rates of suicide among autistic and neuro-divergent people.

The website, Suicide Response Project, has videos and information which can be used by people with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and intellectual disability. As well as their family members, friends and members of their support networks, to make sure people with suicidal thoughts get the help that they need.

Research by Senior Research Fellow at the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, Dr Damian Santomauro, predicts autistic people are three times more likely to die by suicide.

Globally, an estimated 12,500 autistic people losing their lives to suicide in 2019 and the risk of death by suicide is higher in females with autism than males.

Senior Research Fellow at La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, Dr Darren Hedley, says, “Autistic communities have unique challenges when it comes to their mental health, often because of others not understanding them or outright prejudice and bullying.”

“Very few health professionals genuinely understand these challenges, making knowledgeable and supportive family and friends even more critical in their lives.

“This website, underpinned by peer-reviewed research, will not only equip people to better identify the warning signs, it will help give them confidence to intervene in a safe and supportive way.”

Supportive resources tailored for autistic people on the website sit alongside tailored resources for all LGBTIQA+ people, who Dr Hedley says also have elevated rates of death by suicide due to discrimination, prejudice and bullying.

The website was launched yesterday at the Mental Wellbeing and Suicide Prevention in Autism conference facilitated by the Australiasian Society of Autism Reseach (ASFAR), held via an online platform.

The conference was the first event in the world to focus specifically on autism and suicide prevention and was attended by Australian and international people with autism, service providers and suicide prevention experts.

The resources on the website were co-designed with autistic people, LGBTIQA+ people and their families as well as with people with lived experience of past suicidal behaviours. They were also tested in studies involving more than 900 people.

They were based on La Trobe University psychology researcher Dr Karien Hill’s study findings that a theory called the ‘Bystander Intervention Model’ can be used to motivate people to act when someone close to them is at risk of suicide and to improve prevention of suicide.

“This applies to all members of the public – but we also co-designed it with the LGBTIQA+ and autistic communities to ensure there was tailored information for supporting those higher risk groups,” says Dr Hill.

“Overall, it is important for people to know that, with the right knowledge and support, family and friends can play a vital role in preventing suicide.”

The website has 12 modules about different topics related to suicide, from identifying signs of psychological distress to how to make a plan to support someone who is at risk of suicide.

As part of the website’s autism specific focus, the resource outlines the difference between self harm behaviours which people with autism might regularly do when stressed or anxious, for example scratching or picking at skin, and self injury behaviours which might be a sign of suicidal thoughts.

Mel Spencer, Executive Officer of peer support organisation Different Journeys, welcomes the resource as a parent of three children with autism.

“My children all have an autism diagnosis, as well as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. On occasion they’ve felt completely out of control, behaving erratically, and endangering themselves and others,” says Ms Spencer.

“As their parent, having a deep understanding of how people with an autism diagnosis react when they’re under stress compared to neurotypical people – and how to best respond to that – has helped enormously.

“I had to accumulate that information over the years through different websites and health professionals, and finding others in similar situations and learning together – so having access to this kind of specific information in one place is extremely valuable and welcome.”

Dr Hedley says in addition to animated videos and information modules, the website has downloadable fact sheets which can be used for effective intervention techniques.

“Autistic people can differ in how they communicate, including when they are struggling with their mental health,” Dr Hedley explains.

“Too often we hear stories of autistic people being sent home after presenting to emergency – even after saying they are suicidal – before making an attempt on their own life.”

If reading this has caused you distress, call lifeline on 13 11 14.