UI study finds potential links in autism and high IQ to increased thoughts of suicide

Since rates of death by suicide in autistic individuals are already high, the study raised concerns for twice-exceptional youth, concluding that these individuals could be even more at risk.


Matt Sindt

The Old Capitol is seen in Iowa City on Sunday, March 26, 2023.

Sofia Mamakos, News Reporter

Editor’s note: This article contains discussion of suicidal thoughts.

University of Iowa researchers found that autistic individuals with a high IQ face an increased risk for suicidal thoughts, according to a recent study.

Researchers focused on twice-exceptional youth, which refers to highly gifted individuals who also have neurodevelopmental differences or conditions, including autism.

The January study included data from three groups of children, including almost 7,000 children from a nationwide genetic study on autism called SPARK and a clinical sample of over 1,000 high academic achievers with a range of neurodevelopmental conditions — including autism — at a UI clinic.

To represent a more general population sample, researchers also used data from almost 12,000 children without neurodevelopmental conditions from the general population.

Lucas Casten, a UI graduate research assistant and the first author of the study, said the researchers initially wanted to learn more about the overall mental health of people with autism.

“The goal of this study was to try to find traits that are predictive of mental health problems in autism, and what we found was that intelligence is an unexpected risk factor for suicidal ideation and autism,” Casten said.

Casten and the other authors looked at mental health reports from parents of children in the three samples. Parents were asked if their children had thoughts of suicide or if they had harmed themselves in a way that could be related to a suicide attempt.

Following the study, the researchers found evidence that kids with autism were at higher risk for suicidal ideation than children without autism and continued to gather data to find out why.

“We tried to find factors that were predictive of the suicidal thoughts of autism,” Casten said. “So then we started looking at things like intelligence.”

According to research provided through the study, it is likely that individuals with autism already have a higher risk of suicide and depression, as they are more than seven times as likely to die by suicide. Furthermore, the study found that a higher IQ may exacerbate this link.

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Alissa Doobay, an author of the study and psychologist who was a part of the clinic where the evaluations were done, said high levels of cognitive ability can be perceived as precautionary.

“We often think high cognitive ability as being a protective factor that having stronger intellectual skills is going to prevent some of the challenges in life,” Doobay said.

After researchers gathered IQ scores from the children, Casten said they saw disparities for autistic children with high IQs.

Researchers also looked at changes in DNA with things related to depression or intelligence.

“We found that having more of these DNA changes related to better cognitive ability was associated with higher suicidal thoughts in these kids with autism,” Casten said.

Researchers want to continue examining what differentiates children who have autism and no thoughts of suicide from kids with autism that do have suicidal thoughts.

Doobay said she thinks the data from this study can be used to identify higher-risk individuals when it comes to suicide.

“Now that we know that there’s a higher risk in this population, we can be more attentive to that and help these students by screening for suicidality and providing them with interventions and support so that we’re not losing these students,” she said.