Autism And Addiction

Addiction does not discriminate. This means that there is a chance that any individual could develop an addiction at any point in their lives. However, there are some groups of people who may be more likely to develop an addiction for various reasons. Among these demographics are autistic people. The National Autistic Society explains that there are specific, additional ‘reasons that autistic people may develop an addiction,’ suggesting that individuals on the autistic spectrum are perhaps more likely to develop an addiction than neurotypical people. But why might this be?

What is autism?

The National Autistic Society defines autism as ‘a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.’ This can manifest in many different ways. In the autism community, there is a famous phrase (first shared by Dr Stephen Shore, an autistic educator and advocate). The saying is: ‘Once you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.’ This saying aims to indicate the rich, varied experiences that colour the lives of autistic people. It aims to suggest that as autism is a range of conditions, it is not as simple as autism having one specific image. Instead, we need to understand autism as a ‘spectrum.’

Core autism symptoms

Despite its range, autism is still a condition, meaning that it does have a range of diagnostic criteria. These include:

  • Challenged with social communication and interaction
  • Repetitive and restrictive behaviour
  • Being hyper or hypo-sensitive to light, sound, taste and touch
  • Specific ‘special’ interests
  • ‘Extreme anxiety’
  • Experiences of meltdowns or shutdowns

All of these experiences look different for each individual. For example, some autistic people are hypersocial, engaging with strangers as though they were close friends – whereas other individuals may experience intense shyness and struggle to engage with people outside of their immediate circle.

The autism spectrum

When we talk about the ‘autism spectrum,’ what does that really mean? In essence, what it refers to is that autism is an umbrella term for a range of conditions. If you get diagnosed, it is not common that you will receive a diagnosis of ‘autism’. Rather, you will have a diagnosis of a type of autism. The main way that autism is referred to in the medical field is as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But there are also ‘subtypes of autism’ or autistic disorder, such as:

  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Kanner’s syndrome
  • Atypical autism (or PDD-NOS)

Previously, clinicians would use the term ‘childhood autism.’ However, as researchers now know that autism is a lifelong condition, this term is no longer as commonly used.

Autism in the UK: Statistics

  • More than 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum.
  • There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK
  • One third of autistic people have a learning disability
  • In June 2023, 143,119 patients in England were in referral for an autism diagnosis
  • 1 in 10 autistic people have a mental health condition

What causes autism?

We know that autism is a developmental disorder, which means that some individuals are born with autism, whilst some individuals are not. However, it is not inherently clear what causes this. There have been a variety of theories in the previous decades, many of which have been debunked. The strongest theories at present are that autism has a large genetic component. This is supported by evidence that people with autism often have siblings or parents of other close family members with the same diagnosis. There have been other theories, such as a link to prematurity, low birth rate and some minor genetic mutations. However, the research on this is far from conclusive.

Am I autistic?

If you feel that you might be autistic, the best thing to do is to speak with a GP to ask for a referral for a formal diagnosis. However, there are some questions you can ask yourself, such as:

  • Do I avoid eye contact?
  • Do I struggle to put my feelings into words?
  • Do I take things literally?
  • Do I feel very anxious in social situations?
  • Do I often feel ‘different’ or out of place?
  • Do I notice small details that others miss?
  • Do I find it hard to socialise with others?
  • Do I thrive on routine and struggle with change?
  • Do I have ‘special’ interests?
  • Do I seek or avoid specific sensory input?
  • Do I try to ‘mask’ my true self in front of others?

Saying ‘yes’ to a lot of these questions could be a potential indicator of autism – if you find that these areas cause you to struggle or experience distress, it may be worth seeking a formal diagnosis or support.

Autism and addiction

But why are autism and addiction linked? As aforementioned, any individual can develop an addiction – however, there are extra risks associated with autism. These include:

  • Using drugs or alcohol to mask
  • Using drugs or alcohol to deal with sensory discomfort
  • Using drugs or alcohol to ease social difficulties
  • Need for routine (leading to repeat use of substances or engagement with addictive behaviour)
  • A lack of suitable support
  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • A late diagnosis leading to lack of self-understanding
  • A late diagnosis leading to lack of social support
  • Dual diagnosis

A high proportion of autistic people also experience chronic stress, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Autistic people are also more likely to experience unemployment, with only 22% of autistic people being in employment.

Asperger’s syndrome and addiction

Asperger’s is associated with perceived lower support needs. This is typically due to individuals with Asperger’s being able to ‘mask’ symptoms of autism and, therefore, not receiving appropriate support. This can lead to chronic depression and anxiety, which can lead to individuals finding solace in alcohol as a method of coping with the pressure of keeping up appearances and subsequent social and emotional difficulties.

Kanner’s syndrome and addiction

Kanner’s syndrome is linked with difficulty with affective contact with other people. This can lead to social isolation and feeling displaced. Kanner’s syndrome is thought to be a type of ‘classic autism,’ therefore suggesting higher support needs and more social difficulties. Addiction can manifest in this situation due to isolation, feeling misunderstood and as relief from intense discomfort.

Get support for autism and addiction

Autism is a developmental condition, not an illness. This means that it is not something that can be cured. However, there are ways for autistic individuals to access appropriate support, such as:

  • Attending support groups
  • Autism-specific therapy
  • Learning about autism
  • 1-1 therapy and counselling
  • Holistic therapy

Alongside learning how to manage and accept autism, there are also ways to tackle addictive behaviours and thought patterns. Approaching both simultaneously can allow you to reassess and recounter yourself with a new level of compassion and care, allowing you to develop more positive modes of coping in the future. Addiction support can take several forms, including:

There is support available for you. If you are looking for ways to tackle addiction and learn how to implement positive coping strategies as a neurodivergent individual, you can get in touch with us today to learn more.

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