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Asperger’s And Addiction: Co-Occurring Disorders

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Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is a developmental disorder that is part of the autism spectrum disorder category. An estimated one out of every 59 children in the United States have some form of autism disorder.

Many people with Asperger’s syndrome are high-functioning. For this reason, it’s believed that up to half of people with Asperger’s go undiagnosed. Symptoms of Asperger’s can range from mild to severe, with the most common symptoms being trouble communicating, difficulty connecting with others, and the need for a routine.

Nearly 19 million adults struggle with some type of substance use disorder. While Asperger’s doesn’t necessarily increase the risk of developing drug or alcohol addiction, it’s still possible. People suffering from co-occurring Asperger’s syndrome and substance use will likely need a specialized treatment program to cope with their conditions.

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What Is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental condition that begins in childhood and continues into adulthood. People with this disorder most commonly experience social impairments that make it difficult to function in society.

Many individuals with Asperger’s syndrome have normal levels of intelligence and language skills. Symptoms of this condition can range from mild to severe, and in some cases, it may be difficult to determine if a person has AS. This developmental disorder is often referred to as high-functioning autism because many people who have it are able to lead normal and healthy lives.

There are four different symptom categories of Asperger’s syndrome. These include speech and language, social and interpersonal, cognitive, and physical symptoms. People with this condition may exhibit symptoms from only one category or from a few or all of them.

Symptoms of each category include:

  • Social/Interpersonal Symptoms — isolation; trouble making and keeping friends; bluntness; inability to pick up on sarcasm, humor, or irony; difficulty making eye contact; trouble controlling emotions
  • Cognitive Symptoms — difficulty concentrating on something that doesn’t interest the person; advanced memorization skills; obsession with details; trouble understanding abstract information
  • Physical Symptoms — sensitivity to noise, food textures, and odors; trouble with movement coordination; delayed fine motor skills development; decreased physical strength
  • Speech and Language Symptoms — repetitive speech patterns; speaking loudly; monotone voice; trouble understanding language in a social setting

Many people with Asperger’s syndrome are diagnosed between the ages of four to 11. However, some individuals enter adulthood without a proper diagnosis. For an Asperger’s diagnosis to be made, the individual must experience significant impairment in day-to-day functioning, struggle in social settings, and be prone to repetitive behaviors and limited interests.

Asperger’s Syndrome Risk Factors

Approximately one percent of the population ages three to 17 has some form of autism spectrum disorder. The exact cause of autism spectrum disorders like Asperger’s is unknown. However, there are several factors that are believed to contribute to the development of this condition.

Potential risk factors of Asperger’s syndrome include:

  • Genetics — Someone with a close relative who has Asperger’s is more likely to develop the condition than people with no family history of the condition.
  • Environmental Conditions — Factors such as prenatal conditions, air pollutants, and infections may play a role in the development of AS.
  • Brain Structure — Studies have shown that people with Asperger’s syndrome have structural differences in the brain compared to those without the condition.
  • Gender — Males may be at a higher risk for developing Asperger’s than females.

Additional risk factors that may contribute to AS include being born to older parents and having other health conditions such as Tourette syndrome.

Asperger’s Syndrome And Substance Use Disorders

People with Asperger’s syndrome or another autism spectrum disorder are not necessarily at an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder. However, the unique symptoms and challenges that are associated with AS may contribute to a person’s drug or alcohol use.

One of the primary reasons why someone with Asperger’s syndrome may drink or use drugs is to self-medicate. Individuals with AS may experience anxiety in daily life or as a result of a disrupted schedule or routine. Turning to drugs or alcohol to alleviate this anxiety may feel like a viable way to cope with it.

Additionally, someone with Asperger’s may have trouble connecting with other people in social settings. He or she may use drugs or alcohol to ease tension and make interacting with others easier. This can result in dependence on substances when socializing that can eventually lead to addiction.

Another factor that may contribute to the development of addiction in someone with AS is the often obsessive nature of this condition. Many people with Asperger’s become fixated on one activity or thought. If the object of their fixation is drugs or alcohol, people with AS may continue to use substances to the point of dependence and addiction.

Risk Factors Associated With Autism And Addiction

While autism doesn’t typically increase the possibility of developing a drug or alcohol addiction, there may be some factors that put people with autism at a higher risk for abusing substances.

Risk factors that may influence the development of a substance use disorder in people with autism include:

  • having an average or above average IQ
  • co-occurring mental health conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • having family members with substance use disorders
  • early exposure to drug and/or alcohol use
  • higher levels of impulsivity

These factors do not guarantee that someone with autism will develop a substance use disorder. However, for those that do experience co-occurring disorders, specialized treatment is often needed to manage these conditions.

Treatment For Co-Occurring Asperger’s And Addiction

Someone with co-occurring Asperger’s syndrome and drug or alcohol addiction will need to participate in a specialized program catered to addressing these two conditions. If both conditions are not treated, the person may continue to suffer and struggle to maintain long-term sobriety.

More intense treatment is often needed to successfully treat co-occurring disorders. This is especially true in the case of Asperger’s syndrome, as this is a developmental condition that affects every aspect of a person’s life.

Formal treatment such as a dual diagnosis program is often recommended for co-occurring disorders. Inpatient programs provide customized plans for recovery that are catered to each person’s conditions and needs.

While there is currently no proven AS treatment, some research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be effective for people with co-occurring Asperger’s and addiction. CBT focuses on recognizing and correcting unhealthy behaviors to stop substance use and other problems.

To learn more about co-occurring Asperger’s syndrome and addiction, contact a treatment specialist today.