It’s not too often you read about Autism in the context of drug and alcohol addiction. However, there’s no question that mental illness in general frequently accompanies addiction, and Autism is one of them.
Autism is a developmental disorder that has wide levels of variation. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a general term for a variety of complex disorders of the brain, which are typically recognized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behavior. Up until recently, there were variations or subtypes of ASD, considered to be distinct disorders. However, the ASD diagnosis now groups all of these variations into one disorder. Frequently, individuals are described as being on the Autism Spectrum, indicating that there is a range of severity for the same general symptoms.
The main symptoms that are characteristic of ASD include:
Communication problems – difficulty with language, such as focusing attention only on topics, repeating phrases, or having limited speech.
Challenge with relating to people, objects, and events – difficulty making friends and interacting with others, challenges with reading facial expressions and making eye contact.
Repetitive body movements and behaviors – there might be hand flapping or the repetition of words or sounds.
Reviewing this list, it might be easy to see that a main concern for ASD adults is their inability to socialize. And here is where the use of drugs and alcohol come in. Social anxiety and drug use, particularly alcohol, has been a common pair for decades. If you’re feeling uncomfortable in the presence of others, alcohol will help loosen those inhibitions. Of course, this is especially true for those on the Autism spectrum because of their social impairments.
Another reason those with ASD can easily develop addictions is because of a need to self-medicate. Typically, those who are using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism for strong emotions or to function better are known to be self-medicating. However, most adults who self-medicate do so unintentionally. It’s not that they are necessarily trying to treat their mental illness as a psychiatrist would. Instead, they are looking for relief from challenging emotions or for a way to better function in school, at home, or at work.
As writer Kyle Simon, author of the article Autism and The Lure of Substances, points out there are some significant barriers to sober help and sober living treatment for those with ASD. For instance, there will be a significant need for education. Because ASD adults are already socially uninformed, they may not understand that the extensive use of alcohol and drugs is socially inappropriate, not to mention harmful, unhealthy, and destructive. The conversation on sober living might be difficult because an ASD individual might not even understand the need to abstain or resist temptations. In fact, like most other adults, he or she may not have coping mechanisms to replace for their alcohol or drug use.
Furthermore, those with ASD typically have a strong aversion to change. That individual, particularly if drug use has been regular and consistent, may not be agreeable to any sober living treatment. Once the use of drugs and/or alcohol is a part of his or her routine, removing a drug habit could be a significant challenge.
Lastly, the idea of sober help and sober living treatment might threaten an ASD adult’s idea of independence. Frequently, those on the Autism spectrum struggle with achieving their independence. Because of their social impairments and other symptoms, they might have difficulty living on their own, holding a job, or spending time with friends, activities that further their sense of independence. Someone with ASD might experience encouragement by family members or mental health professionals to seek sober help as a threat to his or her autonomy.
For family members of ASD individuals, all of these factors are important to consider if there is need for an intervention. Certainly, the health and safety of that individual must come first while navigating the terrain of obtaining sober help and sober living treatment for an adult on the Autism spectrum.
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