Recent Research Suggests That Autistic Individuals Are At High Risk of Substance Use Disorder
With research expanding on substance use disorder, otherwise known as SUD, professionals are asking more and more questions about the risks and likelihood of developing substance use dependencies. A common question in today’s research regards the connection between substance use disorder and autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. While it has been assumed there is little correlation between the two, recent studies show evidence that suggests autistic individuals could be at higher risk of struggling with substance use.
In 2016, a study was released that analyzed substance use-related problems among autistic individuals. Conducted in Sweden, the study investigated over 120,000 people; about a fourth of them had ASD diagnoses and the rest of them, the siblings and parents of the autistic individuals, did not. The results revealed that the individuals with ASD were 5.9 times more likely to experience substance use-related struggles. The study also revealed that individuals with both ASD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, were at an even higher risk.
Another study conducted in Taiwan and released in 2021 examined over 6,000 individuals with ASD, comparing their substance use to those of non-ASD patients. The study concluded that the autistic patients, specifically those with other behavioral disorders like impulse control disorder and tic disorder, were more susceptible to having SUD. It was also found that the mortality risk of patients with ASD and SUD was higher than non-ASD patients.
What makes people with autism spectrum disorder more likely to suffer from substance use disorder? For autistic people, social and emotional challenges are difficult to manage in a world with little understanding of the autistic experience. According to Sarah Hendrickx, a trainer and consultant in autistic spectrum conditions, it is likely autistic people with SUD rely on substance use to cope with the anxiety and pressure to function in a non-autistic society. In a conversation with Matthew Tinsley, a recovering alcoholic and her autistic colleague, Hendrickx explains that drinking “enabled him to function in the workplace and develop and maintain relationships.” Hendrickx continues, clarifying that Matthew’s substance use lessened his sensory stressors, anxiety and, overall, autistic behaviors.
While the links between autism and substance use disorder are still being researched, it is important to recognize the substance use struggles autistic individuals face. If you or a loved one with ASD suffer from substance use disorder, be sure to seek the appropriate support and resources needed to help in recovery.
Huang J, Yang F, Chien W, et al. (2021)
"Risk of Substance Use Disorder and Its Associations With Comorbidities and Psychotropic Agents in Patients With Autism"
Butwicka A, Langström N, Larsson H, et al. (2017)
"Increased risk of substance use-related problems in autism spectrum disorders: a population-based cohort study"
Hendrickx S, Tinsley M (2016)
"Autism and alcohol"
Desirée Brown is a writer, poet, and content writer. She received her B.A. in English from University of North Carolina-Charlotte and her M.F.A. from New York University. Her work has been featured in Hedge Apple Magazine, Woven Tale Press, Sanskrit Literary-Arts Magazine, and more. She has worked with poets Ishion Hutchinson, Nick Laird, Catherine Barnett, and Matthew Rohrer. She is the founder and executive director of the Young Eager Writers Association. Today, Desirée lives in Atlanta, Georgia.