New, alarming statistics from Kennedy Krieger Institute suggest that suicidal thoughts and behaviors may begin at very young ages in children with autism spectrum disorder. According to a recent survey, parents reported their children wanting to end their own life by 8 years old or younger.

Responses from over 900 caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were analyzed in a nationally distributed survey. Among participants who reported different types of suicidal thoughts, onset at eight years old or younger occurred as follows:

  • 36.2% reported wanting to die.
  • 35.3% reported wanting to end their own life.
  • 18.1% reported having a suicide planned.

Better Awareness of Suicidal Thinking

Dr. Benjamin Schindel, a fellow in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities at Kennedy Krieger Institute and lead author of the paper, is sharing these results on JAMA Pediatrics. He says the original point of collecting the data was to develop a better awareness of suicidal thinking among children with autism. However, when the number of particularly young children having such thoughts was revealed, the urgency behind this research shifted.

“The results are concerning,” Dr. Schindel said. “We were very surprised to find that the expression of suicidal ideation began so young in these children with ASD. This rate seems to be significantly higher compared to their neurotypical peers.”

Children with ASD face unique challenges in communication that may increase the risk of developing suicidal thoughts. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), changes in behavior such as extreme mood swings, withdrawing from friends and family, and giving away belongings can be warning signs for suicide among children. However, Dr. Schindel says not everyone who is at risk and living with ASD, has warning signs. So, he says risk screens are crucial.

Suicide Screening Tools

“Across the country, there are currently limited suicide screening tools and interventions for young children with developmental disabilities like ASD. We are now leading the charge in performing suicide risk screens at Kennedy Krieger among patients starting at 8 years old,” said Dr. Schindel. “There is research showing that we have a lot to learn from a developmental perspective about how children and youth come to understand suicide and the finality of death.”

Dr. Paul Lipkin, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician and professor of pediatrics in the Center for Development and Learning at Kennedy Krieger Institute, developed the survey with other researchers at Kennedy Krieger and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The survey was completed by participants in Kennedy Krieger’s Interactive Autism Network. He says the next steps will involve investigating the risk associated with these suicidal thoughts.

“Now we need to find out if these suicidal thoughts among children with autism spectrum disorder translate to actions,” Dr. Lipkin said. “We need to have an open dialogue about these statistics to help fight the stigma and make sure these children are getting the help and support that they need.”

Dr. Lipkin and Dr. Schindel hope the information can guide best practices and future suicide prevention among this vulnerable group.

“Suicide is complicated, tragic, and also preventable,” Dr. Schindel said. “It is important for parents to check in on their children’s mental health and alert their health care providers if there are concerns so that they can be connected to preventive mental health services, like counseling and, in some cases, medication.”

More resources are available at the Autism Society of Maryland.

About Kennedy Krieger Institute 

Kennedy Krieger Institute, an internationally known, non-profit organization located in the greater Baltimore/Washington, D.C. region, transforms the lives of more than 27,000 individuals a year through inpatient and outpatient medical, behavioral health and wellness therapies, home and community services, school-based programs, training and education for professionals and advocacy. Kennedy Krieger provides a wide range of services for children, adolescents and adults with diseases, disorders or injuries that impact the nervous system, ranging from mild to severe. The Institute is home to a team of investigators who contribute to the understanding of how disorders develop, while at the same time pioneer new interventions and methods of early diagnosis, prevention and treatment. Visit KennedyKrieger.org for more information about Kennedy Krieger.