It’s no secret that the list of co-occurring traits and conditions that fall within the world of autism is exceptionally long. Autistic people tend to be multiply neurodivergent as well as having various health concerns. Despite this, there are certain aspects of Autistic experience that are not well discussed within our community. One of these things is psychosis.
Psychosis is more common in Autistic populations than people realise. Research suggests that almost 35% of Autistic people show traits of psychosis with up to 60% of Schizophrenia patients demonstrating clinically significant traits of autism. When we consider these statistics, it becomes clear that this is an issue that needs to be discussed more openly in our community. Unfortunately, due to the intense stigma surrounding psychosis, it often feels unsafe for people to have this conversation in public places.
Part of this issue is highlighted by the lack of mental health literacy regarding psychosis. One study found that 86% of participants could accurately identify traits of depression, as opposed to only 41.5% of participants accurately identifying traits of psychosis. To me, this is a result of media portrayals of psychosis. The term psychotic is often used as a synonym for dangerous and unstable. Schizophrenia is often mistakenly conflated with Dissociative Identity Disorder, and both demographics find themselves falling foul of movie directors who want to portray a dangerous person.
Within the Autistic community, there can be issues with getting people to speak up about lived experiences of psychosis. Fear of stigma and misunderstandings about this admittedly extreme manifestation of psychological distress can keep people silent, while others want to keep autism separate from perceived “mental illness”. This is problematic because it represents a significant risk of early mortality.
Autistic people are 9 times more likely to die by suicide with one of the primary causes of premature death in people who experience psychosis also being suicide. One might wonder of these findings are intrinsically related. The combined minority stress of being both Autistic and experiencing psychosis could represent a significant factor in the premature deaths of both demographics. Unfortunately, the research on this particular interplay is almost entirely non-existent. We need the discussion around autism and psychosis to open up in order to highlight contributing factors to these troubling statistics.
It isn’t surprising that psychosis is so prevalent in Autistic communities. Psychosis and trauma have an obvious correlation with population based studies showing a strong relationship between childhood trauma and abuse, and the emergence of psychosis. When we consider the effects of minority stress, whereby Autistic people suffer from the cumulative effects of systemic discrimination and oppression, we begin to see a world where in being Autistic almost becomes synonymous with being traumatised in some way.
Something else that is important to consider is the overlap between autism and ADHD. Research suggests that as many as 70% of Autistic people also present clinically significant traits of ADHD. one study found that 32% of adults with a history of psychosis reported ADHD traits starting in childhood with up to 47 % of those with childhood-onset Schizophrenia also presenting as ADHD. We also need to consider that both Autistic people and ADHD people have a significant likelihood of using substances. Substance use and psychosis have a significant enough relationship that there are specific NICE guidelines around this issues.
It is clear that psychosis is a significant issue in regard of the psychological wellbeing of Autistic people. In order to address these issues and create a world where Autistic people can thrive, we need to start talking about this. We also need to address lack of professional cultural competency in Autistic experience and presentation that may result in the connection between autism and psychosis not being identified in clinical and research settings.
Autistic people need good quality identification of psychosis and suitable support for their psychotic traits. Failure to do so is literally placing our lives on the line and failing a growing demographic within our population.