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Social communication difficulties are linked to increased risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviour

Press release issued: 2 May 2018

Children who have difficulties with social communication, as seen in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), have a higher risk of self-harm with suicidal behaviour by the age of 16 years compared to those without, finds a University of Bristol study.

The aim of the study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), was to understand whether autistic characteristics in childhood are linked with suicidal thoughts, plans and self-harm at 16 years.

Children on the autism spectrum often have difficulties in social communication. Recent research has suggested that suicide could be important in premature deaths in autistic people.  However, until now, population-based studies on suicidal thoughts and behaviours in this population has been limited.  Factors that could explain the risk of suicide in autistic people, such as depression, have also not been studied.

Researchers analysed data on 5,031 adolescents from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), to assess whether there were any associations between ASD-like traits (social communication, pragmatic language, sociability, repetitive behaviour) and the risk of suicidal self-harm and suicidal thoughts and plans by the age of 16 years.  Depression in early adolescence at 12 years of age was considered as a possible explanatory mechanism.

The researchers found that children with difficulties in social communication had a higher risk of suicidal self-harm, suicidal thoughts and plans by the age of 16 years as compared to those without. There was no evidence for an association between ASD diagnosis and suicidal behaviours, but the researchers thought this could be because of the small number of individuals with an autism diagnosis followed up until age 16 years.

The team found that approximately a third (32 per cent) of the association between social communication difficulties and suicidal self-harm was explained by depression in early adolescence.

Dr Iryna Culpin, Senior Research Associate in the Bristol Medical School (PHS) and lead author of the study, said: "Our study suggests that children who have difficulties with social communication are at higher risk for suicidal ideation and behaviour in late adolescence. Depressive symptoms in early adolescence partially explain this association which emphasises the importance of addressing the mental health needs of children with autism.

"Future studies should focus on identifying other changeable mechanisms to develop preventative interventions for people with autism.”

This research was funded by the Baily Thomas Charitable Fund.


'Autistic traits and suicidal thoughts, plans and self-harm in late adolescence: population based cohort study' by Iryna Culpin et al in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent [open access]

Further information

Based at the University of Bristol, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), also known as Children of the 90s, is a world-leading birth cohort study.

Between April 1991 and December 1992, the long-term health project recruited more than 14,000 pregnant women into the study and these women (some of whom had two pregnancies or multiple births during the recruitment period), the children arising from the pregnancy, and their partners have been followed up intensively over two decades.

ALSPAC is the most detailed study of its kind in the world and provides the international research community with a rich resource for the study of the environmental and genetic factors that affect a person’s health and development. Through our research we aim to inform policy and practices that will provide a better life for future generations. It receives core funding from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol. Find out more at

About Baily Thomas Charitable Fund
The Baily Thomas Charitable Fund is a grant making registered charity which was established primarily to aid the research into learning disability and to aid the care and relief of those affected by learning disability by making grants to voluntary organisations working in this field.

Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) is the official publication of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. JAACAP is the leading journal focusing exclusively on today's psychiatric research and treatment of the child and adolescent. Published twelve times per year, each issue is committed to its mission of advancing the science of pediatric mental health and promoting the care of youth and their families.

The Journal's purpose is to advance research, clinical practice, and theory in child and adolescent psychiatry. It is interested in manuscripts from diverse viewpoints, including genetic, epidemiological, neurobiological, cognitive, behavioral, psychodynamic, social, cultural, and economic. Studies of diagnostic reliability and validity, psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological treatment efficacy, and mental health services effectiveness are encouraged. The Journal also seeks to promote the well-being of children and families by publishing scholarly papers on such subjects as health policy, legislation, advocacy, culture and society, and service provision as they pertain to the mental health of children and families.

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