In the past, there was little known about the relationship between autism and addiction. People with autism are often thought of as dependent on others, having few opportunities to abuse drugs and/or alcohol and become addicted. However, recent studies suggest that this is not the case.
According to a study out of Sweden, people with autism who have average or above-average IQs are more than 2 times more likely to struggle with drug and alcohol addiction compared to the general population. And, siblings who have a brother or sister with autism may be more prone to substance abuse themselves as they get older.
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and few people know that this condition increases the risk of substance abuse. To better understand the relationship between autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and drug or alcohol addiction, let’s take a look at how the two conditions overlap and feed into one another.
What is Autism?
Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a variety of conditions that are characterized by repetitive behaviors, difficulty in social situations, and challenges with speech and nonverbal communication. There are several subtypes of autism, and, being a spectrum disorder, all people with this condition will have strengths and weaknesses that make their condition unique from someone else’s.
People with ASD may think, learn, and problem-solve differently than the general population. Some are highly skilled and functioning while others are severely challenged. As a result, some people with autism can lead fairly normal and independent lives, while others require a significant level of support.
According to Autism Speaks, nearly 1 in 54 American children are diagnosed with ASD, with the condition being approximately 4 times more common in boys than girls. While the disorder can affect any and all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, minority groups tend to be diagnosed less often and later in life.
Signs and symptoms of autism usually present themselves by age 2 or 3. Some signs can be evident as early as 18 months. From 18 months to 2 years, babies may exhibit little to no babbling, back-and-forth gestures with parents, eye contact, and interaction. Then, as infants and children with ASD get older, other symptoms may appear, such as:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Preferring solitude
- Delayed language development
- Echolalia (persistent repetition of words or phrases)
- Major resistance to small changes in surroundings or routine
- Unusual or intense reaction to texture, light, color, smells, sounds, or taste
- Repetitive behaviors, also known as “stimming” (flapping, spinning, rocking, etc.)
- Restricted, yet specific, interests
- Difficulty understanding the feelings of others
The Overlap Between Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Addiction
While it may be difficult to see the similarities between autism and substance use disorder at first glance, the two conditions actually have some overlapping symptoms. For example, people with either condition may engage in repetitive behaviors, have a hard time coping with emotional challenges, have compulsive thoughts, or struggle with impulsivity. At the same time, both autism and addiction affect the same areas in the brain that are responsible for compulsions and impulsivity.
In addition to having some similarities, the two conditions may also be related due to self-medicating. Children who grow up, particularly with high-functioning autism, may spend their childhood and teenage years trying desperately to fit in with their so-called “normal” peers. This can lead to long-term feelings of inadequacy, depression, isolation, and loneliness.
As the child gets older, he or she may feel trapped and unable to cope with these lingering feelings. If these emotions become too strong, someone with autism may start drinking or using drugs in an attempt to numb the pain or cope with these difficult emotions. In addition, being under the influence may reduce their inhibitions, making it seem easier for people with autism to “fit in” with others who are drinking or using drugs.
Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is dangerous – even for a healthy person. However, substance abuse is even riskier when a person has a co-occurring disorder, such as autism. Drugs and alcohol may make a person’s ASD symptoms more severe, putting them in danger of self-harm or even overdose. People who struggle with autism and addiction should get help from a dual-diagnosis treatment program that is equipped to treat ASD.
Treatment for Autism and Addiction
People suffering from addiction and ASD deserve highly individualized care that focuses on reducing the severity of impulsive behaviors. Therapy can also focus on communication skills and relationships to allow the patient to form healthy and supportive relationships that will help with staying sober. This can be achieved through group and individual cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
Recovering from autism and addiction can be challenging, but it is entirely possible. To learn more about the treatment programs at PAX Memphis or to find help for a struggling loved one, pick up the phone and call today.
Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.