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When I was in graduate school for clinical psychology, very few people in the field were talking about suicide risk in autistic individuals (note: I use identity-first language [e.g., “autistic person”] instead of person-first language [e.g., “person with autism”] because most of my community partners prefer identity-first language). Over the past decade, a growing body of research has raised concerns about the elevated rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in this underserved population. We now know that suicide is a leading cause of premature death for autistic individuals; the prevalence rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviours are significantly elevated in autistic children, adolescents, and adults compared to the general population.

The autistic community has identified suicide prevention as a top priority, yet there is a large evidence gap about how best to intervene to reduce suicide risk in autistic individuals. Our team is preparing to launch a new study, funded by PCORI, to address this gap. I am incredibly excited to have this opportunity to partner with key stakeholders, including autistic individuals with lived experience of suicide loss and suicidality. Over the course of this 5-year study, our goal is to significantly reduce the alarming rate of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in autistic individuals.

But you may be wondering. . . what can we do now? What can we do today, to help autistic people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and behaviors? I have a few ideas to offer:

  1. Follow the wise words of my brilliant collaborator, Lisa Morgan: “Understanding autism and the culture of autistic people, so autistic people do not have to mask/camouflage their autism, is suicide prevention.” Recent research suggests that masking or camouflaging, whereby autistic people attempt to mask or camouflage their autistic traits to try and fit into social situations, is a risk marker for suicidality. Lisa’s quotation highlights the importance of embracing neurodiversity and encouraging autistic people to be their authentic selves.
  2. Check out the following resources, which were developed specifically with autistic people in mind:

  1. Many autistic people need mental health services, but they often face barriers to accessing appropriate and effective care. This article includes recommendations about connecting autistic people with quality mental health supports:

There is so much work left to do to improve suicide prevention practices for autistic people. To make progress, it is crucial that diverse groups of community stakeholders and mental health professionals listen and learn from one another. UNC has incredible opportunities for these types of meaningful partnerships, and I look forward to future collaborations to address this life-and-death issue together.