People with traits of autism who experience psychotic episodes are at greater risk of suffering from depression and suicidal ideation, compared to psychosis patients without autism traits, according to a new Australian study published in the journal Schizophrenia Research.
The findings show that, among people with psychosis, depressive symptoms and thoughts of self-harm were not related to the psychosis, but rather to the level of autism traits a person had.
Previous research has shown that people with an autism spectrum condition are more likely than the general population to develop a psychotic disorder. In addition, studies have shown a notable link between autism and suicide risk.
Researchers have found that people who exhibit higher levels of autistic traits are more likely to attempt suicide than those without these traits. Some of the reasons include feeling excluded from society, feeling as if one is a burden on friends and family and depression.
“The more autism traits people with psychosis had, the lonelier and more hopeless they felt and were more likely to think about suicide,” said Professor Stephen Wood at Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health in Australia.
“When a person presents with a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia, they are at an increased risk of self-harm or suicide. People with autism are also at a heightened risk.”
For the study, the researchers explored how the two conditions might be related by reviewing people with a clinical diagnosis of psychosis and those without.
“What we found was that with both groups the more autism traits a person had, the more likely they were to have depressive symptoms and suicide ideation,” said Wood.
Wood said that the key to preventing people from attempting suicide is to identify those most at risk. “Our study shows that a person’s level of autism traits is an extremely important marker in helping identify those people with psychosis at risk of suicide,” he said.
“What we need to do now is improve care for people with high levels of autism traits who develop a psychotic illness. This means better training for clinical staff to support people with both autism and psychosis, and the need to ask about autism traits in clinical assessments.”
There is growing recognition of the co-occurrence of autism and schizophrenia spectrum disorders. The relationship between psychotic illnesses and ASD is complex, however, researchers have suggested there may be substantial overlap between the two conditions.