Autism and Addiction: Signs & Treatment Options

Updated on January 8, 2023

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a condition where the ability of an individual to perceive, understand, and interact with the world is compromised. Usually diagnosed in early childhood, autism brings a range of opinions and misconceptions about its existence. In the UK, around 700,000 adults and children have autism; according to statistics, one in every hundred people comes under the autism spectrum. While the symptoms of autism are similar in every individual, their severity differs from person to person. And one contributing factor to this severity includes substance use disorder or addiction.

Autism and addiction, when coinciding, are referred to as co-occurring disorders. Therefore, any individual who has autism and suffering from addiction too, they need to seek treatment to overcome this affliction or for successful addiction recovery. Read more to identify the signs of autism and addiction and treatment options.

What is Autism?

A developmental disorder, autism is characterized by impaired social, intellectual, and language skills. It is a spectrum condition that shows itself differently in different individuals. For example, one autistic person may display the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while the other may seem completely detached or withdrawn from those around them. 

Signs of Autism

While no two autistic individuals are the same, some common symptoms associated with autism include:

  • Repeated words or phrases
  • Doesn’t display facial expressions
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Unable to adapt to change
  • Doesn’t respond to their name
  • Seem unaware of surroundings
  • Doesn’t seem able to play with others
  • Doesn’t make friends easily
  • Experiences emotional spells
  • Very literal-minded
  • Forget skills, already learned
  • Often speaks in a monotone
  • Experiences seizures
  • Displays an intense interest in the most minor things
  • Doesn’t understand body language
  • Engage in self-simulating behaviours (stimming)
  • Struggles with social interaction
  • Sensory issues

Why Do People with Autism Develop an Addiction?

At first, autism and addiction would not seem to be connected, but they are. Having autism does not make a person immune to addiction. How?

Addiction is a compulsive urge to seek out a behavior, despite causing harm to the physical and mental well-being. It is an illness that does not discriminate between people and can impact anyone at any time. People with autism may also develop an addiction. Also, a study by the University of Cambridge found that autistic adults are nearly nine times more prone to use drugs for recreational use (such as marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines) to manage unwanted symptoms associated with autism. The reason why an autistic person may develop an addiction might be unique and specific to each person. For example:

  • Some autistic individuals have admitted to using substances, such as alcohol or drugs, to feel more accepted by their peers or blend in socially.
  • Other individuals with autism display addictive behaviours to help manage or control particularly distressing emotions.
  • Drugs are also found to be excessively used by autistic individuals to reduce sensory overload and increase mental focus.

Dual Diagnosis: The Co-occurrence of Autism and Addiction

One of the main reasons why autism and addiction co-occur is self-medication. For example, when people are diagnosed with a mental health condition, they are inclined towards using alcohol and drugs, such as marijuana, opioids, and stimulants, to feel better and reduce stress symptoms. Substance abuse also reduces social anxiety, making it easier for people to engage or relax. Similar to addiction, autism is non-curable. However, early interventions may help. 

Addiction Treatment for Autistic Individuals

Getting treatment for addiction recovery is a complex process in itself, and for an autistic person, it may become more challenging. For example, research shows that 45% of people with autism would not seek help if they were experiencing problematic drinking. 

Some challenges of addiction treatment that autistic individuals may experience include:

  • Group therapy sessions: One of the standard ways used in the treatment for addiction is group therapy. While group therapy sessions are effective for people with addiction, they may feel overwhelming for autistic individuals because of their social anxiety issues. They may experience trouble connecting with their peers, understanding social cues, and sharing experiences, which may make them feel isolated or uncomfortable.
  • Disrupted Routine: Addiction recovery programs allow recovering addicts to create a new routine, which may be unpleasant for autistic individuals.
  • New Environment: A new environment provided by an inpatient treatment program may also be an unwelcome change for autistic individuals as they have to live in the facility for at least 30 days.

Thankfully, they can choose from a myriad of addiction recovery programs available. While finding the right treatment program may take some effort, treatment facilities across the UK are constantly developing plans that are effective and tailored to the needs of individuals suffering from both autism and addiction.

A few addiction treatment programs for autistic individuals include:

Medical Detox

Detoxing is when an individual stops taking drugs or alcohol and may experience withdrawal symptoms. While some people easily overcome these symptoms, in some cases, the withdrawal symptoms can have life-threatening side effects if the medications are not used. 

On the contrary, medical detoxification is a safer alternative. In medical detox, healthcare staff not only monitor the vitals of the recovering addicts but also prescribe to help them alleviate the withdrawal symptoms. In severe cases, medical detox is provided in the inpatient facility, while most individuals safely go through medical detox in an outpatient setting.

Therapy and Counselling

Amongst all the therapies for addiction, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most popular for recovering addicts. It helps patients identify negative thought patterns and behaviours and develop positive attributes such as self-esteem and healthy coping skills. 

Another therapy that is highly beneficial for autistic teens and adults is family therapy. Family therapy provides much-needed support to patients. Also, family members engaging in the therapy will learn more about autism and addiction and know how to be more benevolent with their loved one’s needs.

Get Addiction Support for Autism

We know how difficult it is to get away with an addiction if you have a pre-existing mental health condition. Perhaps you may fear entering the rehab centre, the environment you will stay in, and being anxious to join the groups and communicate with them. Autism and addiction are one of that co-occurring disorders that don’t have any certified or proven treatments. Scientists continue learning more about the interaction between autism and addiction. However, to better understand how autistic individuals adopt substance use, more studies need to be conducted.

While we do not treat autism directly, several facilities in the UK strive to accommodate any requirements of individuals going through co-occurring disorders. For more information, contact your nearest rehab centre and enquire about the addiction recovery process.

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The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.