Diagnosing someone with a condition can come with labels and perceived limitations. It can also come with the freedom to discover what may have been true for a long time but went unnoticed. Autism is a disorder that is not often linked with addiction but is getting more notice lately. Find out why they are discovering links between autism and addiction and how to find support for these challenging diagnoses.

Discovering the Link

Researchers have looked at addiction for many decades, but only recently began realizing how much autism can play a role. It is not as rare as people think for those with autism to use substances. People with autism who have average, or above-average intelligence, are more than twice as likely to become addicted to alcohol or other drugs. The risk is greater for those with ADD, ADHD, or autism. Unexpected biological and psychological connections have been seen, in that there are parallel behaviors between addiction and autism within the brain’s biology that may explain why it occurs more frequently than the general population. 

Higher Risk

An autism diagnosis can double the risk of addictive behaviors. ADHD is a great multiplier of risk, meaning among those with autism and intellectual disability, having ADHD increases the risk of addiction times four. Parents and siblings of people with autism also have an increased risk of addiction. Risk varies with levels of intellectual ability. People with autism are often diagnosed later (although this is shifting), so people who turn to addictive substances may not have a formal diagnosis or realize they are affected by autism. Some symptoms, like anxiety, can promote substance abuse in people with autism because it helps calm them down and keep focused. Other findings include:

  • Alcohol supporting better overall socialization
  • Using alcohol or drugs to take the edge of anxiety
  • Marijuana is used to relax and open up in social settings
  • Compulsive shopping, gambling, or other issues may be done in tandem with alcohol and drugs to avoid thinking about what they are doing

Compulsive addictions or impulsive behaviors may occur more in people with autism. This increases the risk for use of alcohol or drugs. Impulsivity is strongly linked with addiction and people with autism are more likely to seek repetitive, compulsive behaviors or ‘stimming’ to address issues of stimulation (needing more or less). 

Seeking Help

There is no one way to treat addictive behaviors and autism as co-occurring disorders. Most addiction treatment programs may not understand this diagnosis or be able to create an initial diagnosis of autism in a rehab setting. Addiction therapy is done in groups a lot of the time, which may overwhelm a person with autism. For those who are obligated to participate in treatment, failure to comply may land them in jail. This can add stress and anxiety to an already fraught situation. Given the challenges, people who enter rehab programs who have autism may need to rely less on group therapy and more on individualized care. A personal approach and touch can help them feel less sensitive to the impact of rehab on their anxiety. A treatment center with a personalized approach should be able to direct individuals to the best possible scenario for their situation.

A Step in the Right Direction provides a safe space for everyone to come and receive treatment. Whether it is an autism disorder, a behavioral challenge, or co-occurring issues around mental health, we are here to support your individual goals. Our treatment team is passionate about caring for your needs. For more information, sober living programs for men and women as well as recovery programs, call (877) 377-3702