Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, with the theme 'Creating Hope through Action'. Research has found autistic young people are more likely to attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts and the pandemic has had a negative impact on the mental health of many people on the autism spectrum, with a study finding 85% experienced greater levels of anxiety and 9 in 10 worried about their mental health during the pandemic (National Autistic Society, Left Stranded Report 2020). 

We spoke to Chris Foster, Behaviour Specialist for Aspens' Specialist and Family Support team about ways young people on the autism spectrum can be affected, action that can be taken to help them and he reminds anyone who may be struggling that 'you are not alone'. 

Do many of the young people you support experience suicidal thoughts or feel suicidal?

Yes, sadly over the past year we have seen an increase in referrals of this nature.

Self-harm can take so many forms.  

Alongside individuals who feel suicidal, some have experienced voices that tell them to harm themselves or to kill themselves. This can be very distressing for the young person and extremely worrying for their families.

Do you feel this is a growing problem and if so why?

As we have seen more young people referred with such difficulties it would seem this is a growing problem. I am sure that Covid and lockdown have had an impact with young people feeling isolated, experiencing a change in their routine, feeling anxiety around themselves or loved ones catching Covid as well as the general uncertainty it has brought to all our lives.  I am not even sure if the full impact of the pandemic on young people's mental health has hit us yet.   

Research does suggest that people on the autism spectrum may be at a higher risk of suicide compared to those not on the autism spectrum. Autism can often have a co-morbid condition alongside and mental health conditions such as depression.

If we also think of the areas some people on the autism spectrum may find difficult, such as social interaction, then isolation can be more of an issue. They may also be finding an area of their life difficult, such as the pressures of school or work, fitting in, following rules, breaking rules and sensory overload.

How do you support young people and their families who may be feeling like this?

First of all, having someone to listen to them who understands their anxiety, whilst providing some coping strategies. I have found providing a routine and structure can be very helpful. This includes productive activities they enjoy and positive experiences. For example, some of the young people that we support in such a situation have attended a working farm (if they love animals). Keeping busy is important, but you also have to balance it with what they can manage at that time, taking small steps and building up gradually. Engaging in a passion provides a positive experience and focus for the individual.

Support for parents is also important and helping them to know what to do in a moment of crisis; this can be a very scary and lonely place.  And of course we must not forget siblings who often also require support.

Many of the young people that we support may have only just got a diagnosis of autism whilst being supported for their mental health. Because of this, it is important to help them and their family to understand their autism diagnosis. It is important for the individual and their family to know how their autism diagnosis impacts them, and how they can manage this. A diagnosis can be so helpful in making sense of why they may have found this so hard in the past.  

What advice would you give to young people or families who may be experiencing such feelings?

You are not alone, please do not suffer in silence. Speak to someone close to you, speak to your GP and go to A and E if you need immediate help. Parents can also raise their concerns through the Multi Agency safeguarding hub (MASH) for their area and Young Minds have some fantastic resources (see links below). There are many people out there who want to and will help. YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

MASHs Kent

MASH West Sussex

MASH East Sussex

MASH Bexley

Further advice from National Autistic Society

Young Minds

For further information on Aspens Family and Specialist Support services contact: [email protected]