Friday 10 August 2018

"Risk markers for suicidality" and autism: masking or insight as a feature?

The findings reported by Sarah Cassidy and colleagues [1] continue an important research theme in relation to risk of suicide and autism (see here). The value-added bit to their research on this occasion was the observation that "there are unique factors associated with autism and autistic traits that increase risk of suicidality" and that some of these factors may be potentially modifiable.

Members of this research team have some important research history [2] when it comes to looking at suicidality and autism. This time around they report the results of an on-line survey completed by over 160 adults on the autism spectrum and a similar number of not-autistic controls. Prior to the delivery of this survey we are told that a steering group of autistic adults / adults with autism helped to target the research towards what factors might be relevant, including: "non-suicidal self-injury, mental health problems, unmet support needs, employment, satisfaction with living arrangements, self-reported autistic traits (AQ), delay in ASC [autism spectrum condition] diagnosis, and ‘camouflaging’ ASC."

"Results are consistent with previous findings that autistic adults are at significantly increased risk of suicidality compared to the general population." As worrying as that finding is, the observation that suicidality is elevated in relation to autism is nothing new. Indeed, as far back as the late 1990s, there were rumblings of 'under-reporting' of suicidality in relation to autism and related developmental disorders.

Continuing: Various psychiatric labels/conditions were identified as being present in those with autism at a greater frequency than controls. This included various 'comorbidities' previously discussed with autism in mind (see here and see here). Several of those conditions have also been identified as key risk variables when it comes to suicidality. I was also particularly drawn to the rate of personality disorder (PD) identified in this sample: 18% in females with autism compared with 3-4% in control females for example. This is interesting in light of other research explored on this blog (see here) and again, some evidence of an enhanced risk for suicide alongside such a condition. And mention of 'Myalgic encephalopathy' I assume akin to Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), another mainstay topic of this blog, perhaps taps into an area that requires lots more study on the possible overlap between autism and ME/CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) (see here). Indeed, in future posts I'll be [again] covering research on the issue of suicide in relation to ME/CFS [3] that could also be relevant to autism and ME/CFS when co-occurring, reiterating that ME/CFS is not a psychiatric or mental health diagnosis...

Onward: "These results suggest that autism diagnosis and autistic traits explain significant additional variance in suicidality beyond a range of known risk factors, and are therefore independent risk markers for suicidality." So 'autistic traits as being independent risk markers for suicidality'. This is not the first time that such peer-reviewed sentiments have been reported (see here) and probably won't be the last. The logical implications from such a finding is that a reduction in autistic traits may well impact on suicidality. This is not a sentiment that some people will find palatable, but that's the logical implication stemming from such a finding.

Finally, quite a lot has been made (on social media at least) about the issue of camouflaging (masking) and a possible connection to suicidality in relation to autism. Masking reflects the idea that some on the autism spectrum actively camouflage signs and symptoms "in order to cope in social situations." The authors report that: "Camouflaging and unmet support needs appear to be risk markers for suicidality unique to ASC [autism spectrum conditions]." I'm however slightly cautious of this at the moment when wearing my objective science hat. One has to remember that, at present, there aren't many (any?) well validated tools for objectively assessing masking in relation to autism. In this study, Cassidy and colleagues mention how: "A brief set of four questions were designed to quantify tendency to camouflage." The answers to such a small set of open questions are subject to considerable bias (particularly if the individual is active on social media and perhaps privy to all the discussions around masking on there). One also cannot discount the idea that having the fundamental ability of 'insight' to be able to mask/camouflage may itself be a risk factor for suicidality. I say this on the basis of other research talking about how a higher cognitive capacity in relation to autism seems to increase the risk of vulnerability to depression (see here) as a function of the link between depression and suicidality. Simple answers to complex questions are likely to be few and far between.

So, where next? Well, being careful not to fall into any sweeping generalisations or psychobabble explanations of suicide risk in relation to autism, it strikes me that there are a few things to think about in terms of harm reduction. Screening for something like depression and/or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) should be much more widespread in the context of autism. Obviously, such behaviours / diagnoses are not just 'locked in' over a lifetime, so such screening needs to be done quite regularly. I would also mention that other comorbidity seemingly over-represented when it comes to autism might also exert an important effect too (see here). Tackling 'unmet support needs' also looks to be important. I'm slightly less sure of how to go about affecting this, given that the availability of many services are seemingly at the whim of finances and resources, which continue to be in short supply in these austere times (see here). But where there's a will, there's a way. I'll also reiterate that if certain autistic traits are themselves independent risk factors for suicidality, it surely follows that moves to reduce such behaviours would impact on suicidality. Indeed, in this context, the active process of masking could be seen as a double-edged sword when it comes to suicidality and autism.

And I'm also minded to bring in some important literature where autism is talked about in the context of euthanasia and assisted suicide (see here) and what lessons could be learned from some of the accounts detailed there. It's another difficult topic to discuss but something that is becoming increasingly relevant (see here).

As always, if you need someone to talk to (or text), there are organisations available. Please use them.


[1] Cassidy S. et al. Risk markers for suicidality in autistic adults. Mol Autism. 2018 Jul 31;9:42.

[2] Cassidy S. et al. Suicidal ideation and suicide plans or attempts in adults with Asperger's syndrome attending a specialist diagnostic clinic: a clinical cohort study. Lancet Psychiatry. 2014 Jul;1(2):142-7.

[3] Devendorf AR. et al. Suicidal ideation in non-depressed individuals: The effects of a chronic, misunderstood illness. J Health Psychol. 2018 Jul 1:1359105318785450.


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