Autistic children may be at greater risk for suicidal ideation than children without autism, says a new study.

In the first large-scale study using demographic and parental data to analyze rates of suicide ideation and attempts, researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine found that children with autism spectrum disorders had a significantly greater risk of contemplating or attempting suicide, and isolated specific demographic and emotional factors that correlated with a higher suicide risk.

"We were looking at suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among children with autism versus those that didn't have autism," said Angela Gorman, assistant professor of child psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine.

"What we found is that there were some risk factors that were much more greatly associated with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than others."

The study was published in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders in January.

Autism is a developmental disorder that can hamper social and communication skills. People on the autism spectrum may be prone to depression because of difficulty coping with relationships and their own emotions, and a strong sense of difference from "neurotypicals."

The researchers collected data from the parents of 791 children with autism spectrum disorders, 186 neurotypical children, and 35 non-autistic depressed children between the ages of one and 16. They counted demographic variables like age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender, as well as markers like educational achievement and cognitive ability.

Results shows that the demographic variables correlating most closely with suicide ideation in autistic children were being male, age 10 or older, black or Hispanic, and coming from a low socioeconomic status. 71 percent of autistic children with all four of those demographic factors had contemplated or attempted suicide.

"That was probably the most important piece of the study," said Gorman. "If you fell into any of those categories and were rated to be autistic by a parent, the more categories you were a part of increased your chances for experiencing suicidal ideation or attempts."

On the other hand, only 6 percent of autistic children without any of those demographic factors had ever contemplated or attempted suicide.

The percentage of children with autism who were rated by their parents as often contemplating or attempting suicide was 28 times greater than that of neurotypical children, but three times less than that of depressed non-autistic children.

Male children with autism were twice as likely to contemplate suicide, though there were no gender differences in actual suicide attempts. Suicide ideation and attempt rates were three times higher in children over age 10 than they were in younger children.

Researchers also found that depression and behavior problems were strongly associated with suicide ideation and attempts. Bullying and teasing were also common for autistic children who contemplated suicide, with almost half of them experiencing such abuse from their peers.

Cognitive ability and intelligence had little effect on autistic children's suicide ideation, and depression was the strongest predictor of suicide ideation or attempts-77 percent of autistic children whose parents reported that they were depressed contemplated or attempted suicide.

However, autistic children with no mood or behavioral problems were highly unlikely to have any suicide ideation or attempts.

The study stresses the importance of emotional support for children with autism. A recent Japanese study published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry found that 7 percent of adults who attempt suicide are autistic, and that adults with autism spectrum disorders not only attempt suicide at higher rates, but tend to use more serious and effective methods.

The researchers hope to use their data to develop a screening tool that can help identify children with autism who have a higher risk of suicide ideation or attempts. They also hope to replicate this study with a larger sample, including more minority and socioeconomic status representation, and identify other predictors like biological factors.

Gorman and her colleagues suggest that parents of autistic children carefully observe their child's behavior and emotions, and seek care from therapists and psychologists who can identify early indicators of depression or suicide ideation and help create a supportive environment.

With early intervention and strong family and community support, caregivers may be able to help children with autism develop strategies to protect against the negative emotions that can lead to suicide ideation and attempts.