Max is 8 years old with a heavy interest in bugs and photography. He rarely makes eye contact when he talks to others—including his closest family members—and prefers to keep the conversation short…especially when something’s bothering him, like the bullies at school or a smashed lens on his camera. And although Max has his troubles like socializing with others and concentrating at school, he is a loved, loving, extremely intelligent individual. One who doesn’t let his autism spectrum disorder (ASD) get in his way.

Autism spectrum disorder is a mental illness characterized by repetitive behaviors, like having an intense interest in certain topics, and social problems, such as making little eye contact with others and getting upset by small deviations in routine, that hurt an individual’s ability to function in important areas of life. The aforementioned individual, Max, is a character on Parenthood who puts a face to this mental illness—he both suffers and excels due to the condition. And by the end of the show, he as well as his family members have learned how to capitalize on the strengths that come with Max’s disorder and better manage the negatives—such as his feeling excluded from society and being a burden on loved ones. Unfortunately, however, not everyone is so fortunate—they instead get swept up in the harmful effects.

A new study “Are autistic traits associated with suicidality? A test of the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicide in a non-clinical young adult sample” from Coventry University finds that people with certain autistic traits (like the aforementioned communication and social difficulties) are at an increased risk of suicide. These researchers found that those with autistic traits in the study were more likely to attempt suicide than others because they felt excluded from society, believed they were a burden on their loved ones, and experienced depression.

While other studies have linked an increased risk of suicide to individuals with autism, this study is the first to suggest that individuals who simply have autistic traits and not necessarily an autism diagnosis are more likely to attempt suicide as well. This is a groundbreaking study that sheds light on “life and death issues,” according to Mirabel Pelton, the woman behind this research who carried out the study as part of her thesis for MSc Psychology at Coventry. “Research to date has failed to understand the link between autistic traits and suicide but this study suggests that promoting social inclusion and independence could literally save lives,” she says.

The research team made their findings by surveying and studying 163 people between the ages of 18 and 30. After these participants finished an online survey with questions relating to characteristics of autism, depression, and suicidal behavior, the researchers used standard tests and a psychological model to analyze connections between the three previously listed elements as well as feelings of burdening others and not belonging. Ultimately, they found that the subjects who signified higher levels of traits typical to those of autistic individuals were at a greater risk of exhibiting suicidal behavior at some point in their lives. Another notable finding was that autistic traits were also linked to one’s feelings of burdening others, not belonging, and increased susceptibility to depression.

“This is a shocking wake-up call for society, when a significant section of the population feel that they don’t belong in the world,” says Dr. Sarah Cassidy, a supervisor of the research team. “As a society we urgently must do more to value neurodiversity. This could ultimately save lives,” she pleas. The team says that the psychological model used in their study can be used to predict who will exhibit suicidal behavior; and once advancements to it have been made, the model could potentially make a huge difference in assessing and treating people at a greater risk of suicide.

Source: Coventry University “New Autism Study A “Shocking Wake-Up Call” For Society.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 23 October 2017.

Original Research: Full open access research for “Are autistic traits associated with suicidality? A test of the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicide in a non-clinical young adult sample” by M. K. Pelton, and S. A. Cassidy in Autism Research. Published online July 7 2017 doi:10.1002/aur.1828