Have you ever wondered whether there’s a link between autism and addiction? These two subjects, which have gained significant attention lately, are more intertwined than we might have imagined.
The Link Between Autism and Addiction
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), more commonly referred to as just autism, is a developmental condition. It is not an illness or disease and is the cause of neurological differences in the brain. People on the spectrum tend to be different in the way they learn, interact with others and generally process the world.
As the name suggests, it is a fluid condition, and some people may not ever really know why they process things differently, and others may suffer severely – in some cases being non-verbal and unable to function without proper care.
Addiction is the act of doing something compulsively, no matter what the effects are on yourself and those around you. From drug addiction to being addicted to gambling or pornography, these destructive behaviours can quickly enter your life and not leave.
Whilst people with addiction in individuals with autism are less likely than neuro-typical people, it is still a problem they face. Due to the differences, addiction treatment for individuals with autism is not a topic that is widely talked about. It’s important then to highlight the link between autism spectrum disorder and addiction and talk about the challenges and solutions.
Is There a Link Between Autism and Addiction?
Autism and addiction are separate things, but neurological factors can predispose autistic people to have substance abuse and behavioural addiction issues. Shared traits around the need to form habits and engage in repetitive behaviour are clues but using drugs and alcohol to ease mental health problems is a clearer link between autism and addiction.
According to the University of Cambridge, “autistic adults were nearly nine times more likely than non-autistic peers to report using recreational drugs (such as marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines) to manage unwanted symptoms, including autism-related symptoms.” People with autism use substances to help with their sensory processing issues, social problems and mental health challenges caused by their condition.
The two do not cause each other – they instead reinforce and make the descent into full-blown addiction more likely.
Autism and Drug Addiction
Those with autism can have impulse control issues that lead to risky behaviours. They may also want help in focusing when in challenging situations and turn to drugs such as cocaine and prescription stimulants when confronted with a disruptive environment.
Autism and Alcohol Addiction
People with high-functioning autism may only notice the struggles they face in social interactions. Alcohol is a social lubricant and not illegal. Autistic people tend to avoid risks and rule-breaking so indulging in alcohol, and slipping into alcohol addiction, is logically a good way to traverse social anxiety and fit in more.
Autism and Behavioural Addiction
These conditions can be closely entwined as people with autism normally seek routine and repetitive behaviours. Behavioural addictions such as gaming, gambling and the internet provide the comfort of repetition and be easier to process than the outside world.
Signs and Symptoms of Addiction in Individuals with Autism
Recognising addiction in individuals with autism can be hard as some symptoms may be difficult to single out from normal ASD behaviour. You can separate symptoms into physical, psychological and behavioural.
- Sudden change in weight
- Dilated pupils
- Bruises around the arms
- Increased irritability
- Unusual mood swings
- Change in sleep pattern
- Increased anxiety and/or depression
- Losing interest in hobbies
- More secretive
- Financial problems
- Spending more time with people that drink/take drugs to excess
- Neglecting personal hygiene
If you recognise these symptoms in someone with autism, it may be a sign that they need help. Early intervention is possible for you or someone you know. You can reach out to family or trusted friends for help.
Consulting a GP is advised as they could direct you to a drug or alcohol rehab that has addiction treatment for individuals with autism.
If you are trying to examine these signs within yourself, that is very helpful. Identifying risky behaviour and trying to cut them out of your life can go a long way to improving your situation. As you have spent your entire life with autism, no one can know the changes in you better than yourself.
Co-Occurring Addiction and Autism
Sometimes addiction doesn’t happen in isolation. Co-occurring addiction, also known as dual diagnosis, is when a person is suffering from a mental health issue alongside their substance abuse problems.
In an article in the Atlantic, it was stated that “people with autism who have average or above-average intelligence quotients (IQs) are more than twice as likely to become addicted to alcohol or other drugs as their peers are. The risk is even higher for people who also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”
Autistic people who begin to suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety may choose to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
It is a challenge to treat co-occurring conditions in individuals with autism, as it can be hard to identify the symptoms. Signs of depression may be hard to notice as autistics have trouble communicating, and anxiety may be confused with similar traits in autism.
To best manage these problems, alongside professional help, it is important to practice self-care (eat well, exercise, and engage in hobbies). Most important is to acknowledge the issues and be more open about them to those around you.
Treatment Options for Addiction
Addiction treatment for individuals with autism can be can present unique challenges. In terms of the physical side, detoxification is vital to achieving long-term recovery.
Therapies such as group therapy sessions are standard but may overwhelm people with autism. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has proven to work with autistic people if adapted appropriately. CBT is important to help people develop a more positive attitude and learn healthy coping mechanisms.
You are more likely to find treatment suited to people with autism at a private drug and alcohol rehab, rather than through services via the NHS.
Strategies for Preventing Addiction
Before your problems go too far and you need professional help, there are changes in your life that can help you cope better with autism and substance abuse, as well as other addictions. Building your resilience and fostering healthier coping mechanisms besides substances will improve your life drastically.
Change of Diet
Having a more balanced and well-rounded diet is a good foundation to build on. Getting the nutrients, you need will help the healing processes in your body and make you feel better. Whilst junk food feels good initially, too much of it can lead to longer-lasting health issues. Whilst people with autism may be fixated on foods they like and unwilling to diverge, even the smallest change can help.
Not only will regular exercise make you physically healthier, but it also improves your mental health. Autism and mental health challenges can lead to addiction, and exercise provides an outlet for your worries. Even a daily brisk walk will leave you feeling better than doing nothing.
Find New Activities
Whilst people with autism may lean towards becoming obsessed with things, this can be good. Finding new and healthier activities than drinking or drug-taking will help prevent addiction.
Connect with Others
If you have autism, you may find it hard to interact with others. Developing social and emotional skills can help you if you have autism and drug addiction problems. As people learn to connect and express themselves better, they feel less isolated. Isolation is a big reason why people sink into addiction, as they feel they have nowhere and no one to turn to.
How Cassiobury Court Can Help
Whilst it is not talked about, autism and substance abuse problems and other addictions are something that occurs. The link is there, and wider help needs to become more readily available for people who are not suited to common addiction treatment.
Cassiobury Court is an inclusive, forward-thinking alcohol and drug rehab. We strive to help anyone who needs it, no matter the challenges they face. For more info about our rehab centre, call us at 01923 369 161 or text HELP to 83222.