Characteristics of autism are difficulties with social interactions, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors. People who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction tend to also struggle with social anxiety, mood disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder. Some researchers are asking if those with autism use drugs and alcohol in order to help relieve their symptoms. Further, does the repetitive use of these chemicals lead to dependence and an addiction?
The Washington University School of Medicine did an autism and addiction study on 3,080 Australian twins. They found that people with symptoms of autism were more likely than people without symptoms to abuse alcohol and marijuana. In a press release accompanying the research, Duneesha De Alwis, PhD, wrote, “People with autistic traits can be socially withdrawn, so drinking with peers is less likely. But if they do start drinking, even alone, they tend to repeat that behavior, which puts them at increased risk for alcohol dependence.”
Further research has been published on the link between anorexia and autism. In eating disorders the use of food or the lack there of, acts similar to drugs and alcohol in the way that it numbs emotions of anxiety, anger and fear. Research has shown that both people with autism and anorexia have difficulties understanding and interpreting social cues, and tend to fixate on details that make it difficult to see another persons point of view. In addition, both groups of people are comforted by rules, routines and rituals.
The major correlation the studies are finding are that people with autism seek out substances to cope with their overwhelming symptoms. Some helpful foundational points of treatment for addictions and/or autism are:
- Helping the individual address the source of their anxiety, fear and anger
- Teaching healthy coping skills
- Creating a network of support that consists of friends, family, peers with similar struggles and a treatment team