Clare Harrop, PhD, Dara Chan, ScD, CRC, and Laura Klinger, PhD, are recipients of a National Institute of Mental Health (R21) grant, allowing them to study the associations between social connections and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in older adults with autism.
NIMH R21 grants support the early stages of exploratory and developmental research. According to the NIMH, these studies are considered high-risk but with the potential to lead to breakthroughs and make significant impacts in the area of the research.
“Our team has been working to understand various risk factors for suicidal thoughts and behaviors in autism,” said Harrop. “Suicide is the leading cause of death in autism and a major public health issue.” While there is an increased risk for individuals with autism to think about and die by suicide, it remains an overlooked crisis that the team is studying with hopes to change.
Harrop and her team became interested in the grant as it related directly to some of their existing research. “The National Institute of Mental Health announced funding opportunities related to social disconnection and suicide in older adults around the time we started our OAR study (Organization for Autism Research) and it seemed too good an opportunity to not apply to it,” said Harrop.
In this fully remote study, the team plans to recruit 65 older adults, including 40 with an autism diagnosis. The participants will be asked to complete a series of surveys about their social connections (in person and online) and community activities and attend a clinical interview on Zoom, which will address topics such as suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
In addition, the participants will wear GPS trackers for a week that will allow the team to record the locations in which they are traveling in the community, their resource utilization, and their time spent away from home. Subsequently, a second Zoom interview with the team will be conducted to discuss their community activities and social connections collected from the GPS data.
“Our goal is to use this mixed methods data to understand how different sources of social disconnection serve as potential risk factors for suicidal thoughts and behaviors in older adults,” said Harrop. “We hope the data will provide actionable areas for which we can begin to develop effective and scalable interventions for this vulnerable population.”
Furthermore, Harrop explains that the study will “examine potential sex and gender differences in social connections as a protective factor for suicidal thoughts and behaviors in older autistic and non-autistic adults.”
Harrop and her team hope the project will expand the body of knowledge related to suicide prevention and intervention by improving their understanding of suicide risk in older adults with autism.
About the Research Team
Harrop is an assistant professor within the Department of Health Sciences’ Office of Research and Scholarship and the UNC TEACCH Autism Program. Throughout her research, she has focused on using various methods to understand the sex differences in individuals with a diagnosis of autism.
Chan is an associate professor and admissions chair in the Department of Health Sciences’ Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling. Her research interests include utilizing global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) to understand and measure community participation and integration, and resource utilization.
Klinger is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the director of the UNC TEACCH Autism Program. She is a clinical psychologist committed to community-based care and methods to support the implementation of evidence-based practices in community settings. Her current research is focused on identifying and supporting service needs for individuals from young adulthood through aging.