Autistic folks may be at higher risk for substance misuse disorder, but treatment can help you recover and learn healthier coping mechanisms.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism, is an umbrella term for a group of developmental disabilities that affect communication, behavior, and learning. Autism is most commonly diagnosed in early childhood, although some adults receive a diagnosis much later in life.

Research suggests that autistic folks are more likely to experience co-occurring mental health conditions, including substance use disorder. Substance use disorder, also known as drug abuse or addiction, develops when repeated substance use leads to severe impairment in daily life.

Below, we explore the possible connection between autism and addiction, including the effects of autistic traits on substance use and misuse and treatment options for recovery.

According to statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2022 alone, roughly 17.3% of adolescents and adults in the United States had a substance use disorder.

Substance use disorder can affect anyone, but a 2022 research review indicated that several factors can increase the risk of developing this condition. One of those risk factors is autism — which studies suggest may be associated with a higher risk of substance use disorder.

One large population-based study from 2016 explored the risk of problems with substance use in both autistic folks and those without autism.

Study results, which included 26,986 autistic individuals and 96,557 relatives without autism, found that autism was associated with double the risk of substance use problems. Results also showed that autistic folks with co-occurring attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) had the highest risk.

Another recent study published in 2021 explored substance use disorder risk in autistic adolescents and adults, including the possible factors associated with this risk.

Substance use disorder, alcohol use disorder, and drug use disorder risk were significantly higher in autistic participants, according to the study. Study results also showed that autistic participants with substance use disorder had a higher risk of mortality than non-ASD participants without the disorder.

When it comes to substance use overall, autistic folks may actually be less likely to engage in these behaviors, per recently published research. However, autism appears to increase the risk of casual substance use turning into substance misuse or substance use disorder.

Autistic folks may be more likely to develop substance use issues because of traits associated with autism. For example, brain changes, repetitive behaviors, social pressure, and self-medication are just a few factors that can play a role in increasing substance misuse behaviors.

A different study also published in 2021 showed that some of the most commonly reported themes of substance use in autistic adolescents and adults included:

  • having positive experiences
  • managing physical symptoms
  • managing mental health symptoms
  • addressing behavioral symptoms
  • feeling socially motivated

A review of research from the same year indicated that several risk factors related to autism, such as higher severity, difficulty with social functioning, and cognitive deficits, to name a few, also played a role in substance use risk.

Outside of autistic traits, the researchers found that other factors that are more likely to affect autistic folks — mental health conditions and substance use issues in relatives, for example — also increased overall risk.

Treatment for substance use disorder varies from person to person, depending on the substances misused, the length of use, and other factors. Ideally, the treatment you receive should factor in your needs as an autistic person. Talk with any healthcare professional you consider to learn whether they have experience and a history of positive outcomes working with autistic clients.

Supervised inpatient detoxification

Detoxification is a process that involves discontinuing the use of a substance that a person has developed a dependence on. Detoxing the body can happen gradually or suddenly, depending on the approach, and can cause withdrawal symptoms.

Because detoxification and withdrawal can lead to serious health outcomes, it’s almost always done under medical supervision — typically in a hospital or inpatient setting. You can find treatment facilities near you by using

Inpatient or outpatient treatment

After the detoxification process is complete, the next step is inpatient or outpatient treatment:

  • Inpatient treatment usually takes place in an inpatient facility with around-the-clock care and support. Inpatient treatment offers people the chance to engage in intensive recovery in a safe and supportive environment.
  • Outpatient treatment usually involves a combination of daily treatment at a facility and continued treatment at home. Outpatient treatment offers people more freedom to engage in daily life while undergoing recovery.

Support groups, programs, and therapy

Support groups and other programs, such as 12-step programs, offer additional long-term support to people in recovery from substance use disorders. Some programs even cater specifically to autistic folks who are in recovery from addiction.

Therapy is also a crucial element of substance use disorder recovery that teaches the skills necessary to avoid relapse. Autistic folks in recovery can also benefit from therapy approaches that address some of the social, behavioral, and mental health risk factors for substance misuse.

Autistic folks may be less likely than their peers to engage in alcohol or drug use, but those who do engage in substance use may be more likely to misuse these substances.

Several factors appear to increase this risk, including trait severity, social and cognitive deficits, and more.

If you or someone you love has been living with substance misuse or addiction, consider reaching out to a doctor or therapist with your concerns.

With the right treatment and other supportive resources, you can detox and learn the skills necessary for long-term recovery.