Co-Occurring Autism Spectrum Disorder And Addiction

Autism is a condition that causes a range of traits, some of which may increase the risk of addiction. Specific risk factors include social anxiety, sensory stress, and the tendency that some people with autism have to want to hide their autistic traits.

Often, mental health conditions and drug abuse occur together in people.

Neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism, are also common among people who have a substance use disorder (SUD).

Keep reading to learn more about the connection between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and substance abuse disorder.

What Is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder is a condition included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that causes a range of traits.

These traits can include:

  • intense and focused interests
  • communication differences
  • a need for repetition and routine
  • repetitive or even obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • difficulties with social interaction
  • difficulty assessing the intentions of others
  • discomfort when expected to make eye contact
  • sensory processing difficulties
  • intellectual disability or high IQ

Autism is said to occur on a “spectrum” because of its diverse traits, not because a person may be seen as having “low functioning autism” or “high functioning autism.”

One type of ASD is Asperger syndrome. People with Asperger’s retain their early language skills and have a tendency to obsessively focus on one area of interest.

Autistic people may have a higher risk of drug addiction than that of the general population, though research shows mixed results on autism and substance misuse.

Autism And Addiction Protective Factors

Some research on drug and alcohol use and autism shows that autistic people are less likely than their allistic (non-autistic) peers to develop substance use disorders.

Certain autistic traits may serve as protective factors against substance abuse.

For example, many autistic people have sensory sensitivities, feeling physical pain when confronted with loud noises, bright lights, and other intense stimuli.

They may, therefore, avoid the types of environments that often include drug and alcohol use, as these environments may contribute to overstimulation.

Likewise, a preference for repetition may reduce the risk of drug and alcohol abuse if drugs and alcohol are not a part of the person’s routine.

Autism And Substance Abuse Risk Factors

Other studies have found that autistic people, particularly those without an official autism diagnosis, may have a higher risk of drug abuse compared to their allistic peers.

When autistic people do develop addictions, specific risk factors may play a part in the connection between autism and addiction.

Addiction And Social Anxiety

Autistic people report high levels of social anxiety, which is a fear of being judged by others.

Many autistic people do not intuitively pick up on the unspoken social “rules” set by allistic people, which can complicate this fear.

Some people with social anxiety use drugs and alcohol in group settings to relax. In some cases, this can turn into a form of self-medication.

Addiction And Sensory Stress

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) can exist in both autistic and allistic people. However, it is especially common in the autism community.

Drugs and alcohol can impact people with SPD in different ways. Some may not enjoy how drugs and alcohol make them feel. Others may find that certain substances dull sensory stress.

For people who experience the latter phenomenon, drug use may also become a form of self-medication.

Addiction And The Burden Of Hiding Autistic Traits

Several autism interventions focus on the suppression of autistic traits. Such efforts may contribute to poor mental health in autistic people.

Many autistic people experience a phenomenon called “autistic burnout,” which is a sense of exhaustion that comes from hiding one’s autistic traits for extended periods of time.

Research also shows that compensating for autistic traits causes anxiety.

Even when autistic people don’t inherently understand social rules, many are able to learn them as a skill, much like a person could learn an instrument or a foreign language.

However, one study on autism and social skills reveals that among autistic adolescents with high IQs, those who compensate for their autism in social situations report high levels of anxiety.

Like other types of anxiety, this form of anxiety may lead to drug and alcohol use as a coping mechanism.

Autism And Co-Occurring ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has a high prevalence in autistic people, according to healthcare and psychiatry experts.

ADHD creates an increased risk of addiction, primarily because ADHD impacts how the brain uses dopamine.

Prescription stimulants can help people with ADHD cope with symptoms, but not every person with ADHD has access to treatment.

The psychiatric comorbidity of autism and ADHD may cause people to seek illicit drugs that flood the brain with dopamine, thus creating temporary symptom relief.

Treating Addiction In Autistic People

Addiction is a complex disorder, especially when a person also has one or more developmental disorders.

When providers don’t understand the needs of people with autism, addiction treatment may not provide successful results.

Fortunately, with the right treatment, it is possible for autistic people to recover from addiction.

Some autistic people may respond very well to traditional inpatient substance abuse treatment. Others may need a different approach.

For some, an outpatient addiction program, which allows people to retain much of their routine, may be more helpful.

Care providers are also able to accommodate sensory and social needs if a participant has a dual diagnosis.

For example, treatment may focus on individual therapy instead of group participation.

Clinicians may also provide treatment in rooms with minimal noise, low lighting, and other sensory considerations.

Find Addiction Treatment Today

Spring Hill Recovery Center uses evidence-based treatment programs, including outpatient programs and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for people living with addiction.

We personalize our approach so that each individual’s unique needs are considered in the development of their treatment plan.

If you or one of your family members may need addiction help, contact Spring Hill today.

  1. Autistic Self Advocacy Network — About Autism
  2. National Institute of Mental Health — Substance Use And Co-Occurring Mental Disorders
  3. National Library of Medicine — Autism Spectrum Disorder And Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorder: A Systematic Review
  4. National Library of Medicine — Overlaps And Distinctions Between Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder And Autism Spectrum Disorder In Young Adulthood: Systematic Review And Guiding Framework For EEG-Imaging Research

Written by Spring Hill Recovery Editorial Team

© 2024 Spring Hill Recovery | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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