New La Trobe University research is exploring why people on the autism spectrum are at increased risk of depression and suicidal thoughts.
Three recent studies, carried out by La Trobe’s Olga Tennison Research Centre research fellow Dr Darren Hedley, focussed on the links between loneliness, social support, depression and thoughts of self-harm or suicide in 261 adults on the autism spectrum.
Across the three studies, up to 49 per cent of participants met the clinical cut-off for depression and up to 36 per cent reported having recent thoughts of self-harm. The research showed loneliness, depressive symptoms and thoughts of self-harm were significantly correlated. Rates of depression were higher in females on the autism spectrum.
The results highlight the contribution of loneliness to depression and thoughts of self-harm, suggesting that targeting loneliness and providing increased opportunities for meaningful participation in society may improve mental health outcomes in people with autism.
Dr Hedley said researchers currently do not understand why the risk for suicidal thoughts was higher for people with autism. He said the study was one of the first to explore the reasons underlying increased suicide risk in people on the autism spectrum.
“We do not know if mechanisms underlying the risk are different in people with autism to other groups, or if mechanisms are similar but risk factors are amplified due to symptoms of autism.
“Our research focussed on the social and environmental influences associated with psychological well-being in people on the autism spectrum,” he said.
Dr Hedley said social support networks such as friendships and family relationships were identified as a potential protective factor against poor psychological well-being, with the quality rather than the quantity of support found to be associated with better psychological well-being.
“The findings highlight the importance of social relationships as potential protective factors for these poor outcomes.
“More research funding is needed to explore in more depth why there is an increased risk for suicide and suicidal thoughts in this population.
We plan on doing more research concerning suicidal thoughts and behaviour in people on the autism spectrum as a result of our findings,” Dr Hedley said.
This research was supported by funding from DXC Technology and the Federal Government Department of Human Services and Department of Defence.
Lifeline: 13 11 14.