In the U.S., about 1 in 59 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These rates include those who have conditions that used to be diagnosed separately, including autistic disorder and Asperger syndrome.
Studies have found that some people with ASD are more vulnerable to become dependent on substances like alcohol. This is most likely due to the intense anxiety and sensory problems that are caused by the various forms of ASD.
Alcohol is a depressant drug, and can have a calming effect on a person’s thoughts and mood. Unfortunately, alcohol is highly addictive and regular use can lead to alcohol dependence. When a person is dependent on alcohol, their body requires the substance to function properly.
There is a definite correlation between alcoholism and autism. People who suffer from both ASD and alcoholism may feel they need the substance to interact with people and the world around them. To reduce the rates of people with ASD and alcoholism, it’s important to identify how these two conditions are connected.
How Common Is Alcohol Abuse Among People With Autism?
Generally speaking, people with ASD are at a lower risk for developing alcoholism, especially when compared to other psychological conditions. However, if a person with ASD drinks, they are at an increased risk for becoming alcohol-dependent.
People with autism spectrum disorder often struggle with social and communication skills. These symptoms can manifest as being socially withdrawn, having a deep attachment to routine, and repeating certain motions or behaviors for comfort.
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Most people who drink to excess begin that behavior in a group setting (often during college). Because of this, people with autistic traits may not engage in binge drinking behaviors with their peers. However, if people with ASD do begin to drink, they tend to repeat that behavior. This puts them at an increased risk for alcohol dependence.
One study found that the more autistic traits a person has, the higher the likelihood of substance abuse. Of the people in the study who had six or more autistic traits, about 35 percent struggled with alcohol dependence.
Compared to other psychiatric disorders, people with ASD tend to have lower rates of substance abuse. However, this study focused specifically on people who have ASD traits, including trouble expressing their needs and difficulty adapting to new situations.
Is Alcohol Abuse A Symptom Of Autism?
Not necessarily. While some people who display autistic traits do struggle with alcoholism, there are other significant markers of autism spectrum disorder to keep in mind. ASD symptoms tend to manifest in symptoms that include:
Abnormal Social Skills
People with ASD have different ways of interacting with others. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, some people with ASD may prefer not to be touched or held. Others may have trouble with eye contact, or struggle to relate to how others are feeling.
Sometimes, people with autism spectrum disorder may be very interested in others, especially when it comes to their routines and behaviors. However, it’s often challenging for people with ASD to have conversations with other people. They may repeat certain words or phrases, or use motions in place of words.
It can be hard to know how best to communicate with someone with ASD, because their style of speech is different. The most important thing to remember is that everyone with ASD is unique. Learning the habits and speech patterns of your loved one demonstrates an interest in what they have to say.
It’s also common for people with ASD to have unusual reactions to sensory-based situations, including the way things feel, taste, look, smell, or sound. If a person with ASD has severe sensory-related issues, they may rely on alcohol as a way to relieve the anxiety that results from these symptoms.
Trouble With Emotional Processing
People with ASD may struggle not only in communicating their feelings, but in simply knowing what their feelings are. The inability to swiftly process emotions can lead a person to turn to alcohol for solace.
For people with ASD, drinking may seem like a comforting activity they can repeat when they feel anxious. Unfortunately, repeated episodes of drinking increase a person’s risk of alcoholism.
Does Alcohol Abuse Cause Autism?
No. Some people believe that drinking while you’re pregnant can lead to autism, but this is not factual. While maternal alcohol abuse does have negative impacts for a developing baby, autism is not one of the risks.
However, women who drink while pregnant do risk having a baby born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Some of the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome and ASD can overlap. Both conditions can lead to sensory issues and decision-making problems, but the two conditions do not appear to be related. While the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome may initially look like ASD, these symptoms manifest differently, especially as people age.
While alcohol abuse during pregnancy is not known to increase the baby’s risk for being born with autism spectrum disorder, researchers have found other risk factors that can increase a person’s chance of ASD.
Risk factors for developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) include:
- genetic factors
- being born to a mother of an advanced age
- taking certain drugs during pregnancy, such as valproic acid or thalidomide
- having a sibling with ASD
- chromosomal conditions, such as fragile X syndrome
There have been major improvements in the study of ASD. We now have effective ways to treat this condition, especially with early intervention therapy. While having autism spectrum disorder can be challenging, it is possible to create a meaningful life without having to rely on alcohol.
Additionally, studies have found that people who have a relative with ASD may be at an increased risk for developing a substance use disorder. Fortunately, therapeutic treatment is available for the whole family.
Treatment For Alcoholism And Autism
There is currently no cure for ASD. However, certain therapies have been proven to effectively treat the symptoms of this condition. If you or a loved one has been using alcohol to relieve the symptoms of ASD, there are safer treatment options available.
At Vertava Health, we provide alcohol rehab programs that are customized to each patient. For those who have a co-occurring health condition like autism, personalized treatment plans ensure comprehensive treatment of the whole person.
Therapies available at our rehab centers include individual counseling, medication-assisted treatment, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). These therapeutic approaches are an integral part of treating the symptoms of ASD, and can also be used to recover from active alcohol addiction.
For more information on the link between alcoholism and autism, or to find a treatment center near you, contact an Addition Campuses specialist today.