Exploring the Relationships Between Autism & Substance Abuse

autism and addiction

Over the years, there have been several studies on the relationship between autism and substance abuse. Research has shown that individuals on the spectrum are more susceptible to substance abuse or addiction. Needless to say, understanding this connection is key to intervention and providing proper support for the people affected by this problem.

In this article, we will explore the link between the two and explain what you can do to prevent it:

What Is Autism, and How Is It Characterized?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disability that affects an individual’s social skills, behavior, and communication. There is no known cause of autism, as it can develop from various combinations of genetic, nongenetic, and environmental influences.

It can be difficult to diagnose ASD, as there is no medical test for it. Instead, doctors will observe a child’s behavior and development. People with ASD often have the same delayed development when it comes to social communication, movement, and learning.

Some characteristics of people with autism include:

  • Stilted speech
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Inflexible behavior
  • Sensory hypersensitivity
  • Intolerance of change

To ensure that your child gets the help they need, bring them to the doctor when you notice any of these signs. Professionals can diagnose ASD in a person as young as 2 years old using these metrics.

What Is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse is the uncontrolled use of substances despite experiencing substance-related problems. These include gateway drugs like alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine. Other commonly used substances are opioids like heroin, fentanyl, and other prescription medicines.

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, over 50% of people 12 years old and older have used drugs at least once. The most abused substances among adults are marijuana (18.7%), opioids (3.6%), and prescription pain medication (3.5%).

Among these substances, opioid abuse is the most dangerous. These medications work by dulling specific receptors in the brain to reduce pain. Doctors often prescribe opioids to patients to manage chronic or severe pain, but they can make you dependent and cause different side effects.

In 2021, over 75% of drug overdose deaths involved an opioid, with 88% caused by synthetic opioids. Opioids are highly addictive, and their use should not be taken lightly. If you know someone who uses these drugs, consider looking into opioid dependence treatment as soon as possible.

The Connection Between Autism and Opioid Abuse

The connection between autism and opioid abuse can be attributed to a person’s desire for normalcy. In a study on autism by the University of Cambridge, they found that individuals with ASD are nine times more likely to use drugs to manage unwanted symptoms caused by their condition.

People with autism have sensory issues that make them more sensitive than others. When faced with situations that can cause sensory overload, they can turn to substance use to manage their emotions.

Adults with ASD also find it difficult to focus or pay attention to one thing for too long. This can negatively affect their learning and processing capabilities. By numbing the senses, opioids can help people relax and make it easier for them to focus.

People with autism also often have a hard time making friends, which can cause feelings of isolation. Opioids release endorphins, which can help them escape negative emotions and feel at peace.

Social Stigma of Autism and Substance Abuse

Despite 1% of the world’s population having ASD, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding this disease. In a study on children on the spectrum, they found that around 75% of kids were left out of activities by others, while 37% were bullied. The situation is not that different for adults.

A 2021 study on camouflaging revealed that people with ASD often mask their symptoms and autism-related behavior to avoid being harassed, mocked, or stereotyped, and substance use is one way to do so.

Unfortunately, casual substance use can easily turn into addiction. And while substance use disorders (SUD) are treatable, people suffering from SUD also face discrimination that can affect their mental and physical health.

For a person with co-occurring disorders, the social stigma can contribute to worsened symptoms and an increased dependency on substances to escape reality. They may also be less likely to seek treatment, as they see their condition as shameful and would want to hide it as much as possible.

Can Substance Abuse in People With Autism Be Prevented?

Substance abuse in people with autism can be prevented with early intervention and a proper support system.

As a parent, talking to your child about addiction and its risks is a crucial conversation to have. People with ASD are very logical, so using facts to help them understand the dangers of substance abuse can help guide them toward the right path.

It’s also important to create a supportive environment for people with autism. One way to do this is by promoting open communication. You should allow them to express their thoughts without fear of judgment, as this will help them develop healthier coping mechanisms. In return, this can alleviate stress and anxiety without resorting to substances.

Lastly, try to involve the rest of the family and caregivers in their support system so that these people can guide them toward making better choices. Their healthcare provider can also educate them on proper medication management to reduce symptoms and prevent dependence on illegal drugs.

Final Thoughts

People with autism and substance use disorder have faced discrimination for years, so we should take the initiative to change that.

Caring for someone with autism who also suffers from substance abuse or being that person yourself is often more than challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone. You shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to professionals who can assist you or your loved ones with managing all the symptoms. This alone can help you better understand the condition and its potential risks, as well as get rid of it with minimal discomfort.

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