Researchers used to believe that addiction among people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was rare. The reason was that people with autism tend to follow the rules, making them less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. People with autism are also usually more isolated from their peers, protecting them from situations where drugs and alcohol are accessible.
While this all makes sense, a study from Sweden suggests the opposite. According to the 2017 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, people with autism with average or above-average IQs are more than twice as likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol as their peers. The risk for addiction is even higher for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Understanding the Link Between Autism and Substance Abuse
Although this is the first study of its kind, other researchers are finding similar correlations between autism and substance abuse. For example, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities opened a lab focused on the biological and behavioral components of addiction and autism. Here is what the lab discovered:
- People with autism use repetitive behaviors to cope with emotional problems. Addiction is characterized by repeated misuse of drugs and alcohol. It’s possible that once a person with autism experiments with drugs and alcohol, they are more likely to repeat using them.
- Many people with autism exhibit impulsive behavior, such as tantrums, emotional outbursts and self-injury. Compulsive substance abuse characterizes addiction despite harmful consequences.
- Both autism and addiction affect some of the same brain regions and genes. Research into the brain and related genes may improve autism care and addiction treatment and prevention.
Treatment for Autism and Addiction
Understanding the connection between addiction and autism is important for both communities. For example, conventional drug rehab focuses on group therapy, peer support, and shared experiences that clients can relate to. For a person with autism, this treatment may be ineffective.
At Awakenings Treatment Center, we work with people on the spectrum who also suffer from drug and alcohol abuse. We find the most effective treatment includes:
- Individualized care that addresses each client’s strengths and weaknesses.
- Safe, supportive environment that focuses on individual performance, not group reliance.
- Positive encouragement on visual activities and learning – not just verbal instruction.
- Hands-on staff that understands this sensitive population.
- Vocational rehabilitation and cognitive behavior therapy to help clients assimilate into society.
There are specific challenges in treating people with autism and addiction. Awakenings Treatment Center has the tools and resources to treat this sensitive population. With our trained staff, individualized treatment modalities and accessible resources, we are successful in helping people get back on their feet. For more information, contact our dual diagnosis treatment center today.