Higher rates of suicide reported among women with autism, researchers say


WGN’s Medical reporter Dina Bair has some surprising statistics on suicided and the grave risk in one community.

They are neighbors, in our school classrooms and working in the community, one in 36 people are on the autism spectrum. And while we live alongside the population, we may not understand their deeper, at times life-threatening, struggles.

“I’m rather up front with my autism,” Kyle Engbrecht said.

Engbrecht didn’t feel comfortable showing his face on camera, but he did want us to hear his words.

“I know that I do things differently, and not everyone will understand that,” Engbrecht said.

An artist with a skilled hand, the 27-year-old detailed his personal experience living with autism.

“Sometimes I just have trouble looking people in the eye because, for some reason, it’s uncomfortable for me. I have to sit there and manually press those buttons to make sure my body is doing the right thing.”

“He works so hard to be aware of his autism and how it influences his behavior and how his behavior influences the people around him, but at what cost?” Kyle’s mother Jeanne Beard said.

For some on the spectrum, the cost has been too difficult to bear.

Looking at decades of data from more than 300,000 patients, University of Toronto researchers found females with autism had an 83% increased risk of self-harm, while males had a 47% increased risk.

When it came to suicide deaths, females with autism had a 98% increased risk and males with autism had a 34% increased risk. A quarter of young people with autism experience suicidal ideation, and 8.3% attempt suicide.

“Oh my god the suicidal thoughts (throws head back). It was a really dark day when I read that statistic,” Engbrecht said.

“Those numbers scare me they scare me a lot,” Clinical Psychologist Dr. Tim Wahlberg said.

Dr. Wahlberg has been working with individuals on the spectrum for 30 years.

“When you get into more of the adult population what these studies are finding and what I see unfortunately are individuals who feel very lonely, very isolated,” Dr. Wahlberg said.

The psychologist specializes in teaching parents how their children communicate and how they see and process the world around them. But there are things he can’t teach.

“I wish that people could be more compassionate,” Dr. Wahlberg said.

“When it comes to interacting with just the outside world the absolute worst part is the guilt. If I don’t perform well if I make people uncomfortable if I can’t do a task because of my autism I feel like I’m failing the people I love most that I’m letting them down,” Engbrecht said.

“If I can only help him do one thing it’s feel comfortable in his own skin,” Beard said.

But Jeanne Beard does so much more to support her son.

“My mom has been that lifeline that has kept me tethered she has kept me from drifting off to obscurity,” Engbrecht said.

“I worry so much about him it feels to me sometimes he’s going through the motions and that’s not what you want for your child I want him to be happy I want him to have a family I want him to enjoy his life,” Beard said.

And life without his mother is something Kyle ponders wondering if he, too, might consider ending his own.

“To be perfectly honest I thought about it and when my mom does come to pass I’m not sure if I won’t be a part of that statistic as I won’t know if I have anyone in my corner who can help explain things or translate things to help me make sense of this world,” Engbrecht said.

“I’m not saying I’m planning it of course I’m not saying I want to do that, but I can understand the rationale behind it.”

Therapy has helped Kyle and his mother better understand each other. Dr. Wahlberg’s tailored approach has been a lifesaver.

“What I’ve tried to teach Kyle to do is advocate to be able to explain to people what he needs, what he’s feeling, what is going on, I think that is a big piece of it” Dr. Wahlberg said.

For Jeanne, who authored a book about her family’s experience with autism, educating others is critical to her mission. She’d like to see more training for teachers, first responders and especially fellow parents.

“Education is the answer across the board and making quality education available to parents, every day at home can be therapeutic if you’ve got the education and you understand,” Beard said.

“I think everyone should have at least one person in their corner,” Engbrecht said.

It can make a difference. For those with other mental health struggles like anxiety, depression and rigid thinking, there is an even greater burden and suicide threat. Knowledge is power to help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, reach out. There is help 24 hours a day at the suicide and crisis lifeline. Simply dial or text 988.

To learn more about Dr. Tim Wahlberg and his practice, click here.

For more information about Jeanne Beard’s mission, click here.

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