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Medically Reviewed

A Look Into Substance Abuse and Autism

- 5 sections

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Addiction in the autism community is seldom talked about. However, drug and alcohol abuse affects people of all walks of life, including high-functioning autistic individuals and those suffering from Asperger’s disorder. As with any other mental illness, autism increases the risk of addiction, and substance abuse and autism are closely connected.

Today’s society and culture are highly dependent upon socializing with others. People are constantly connecting on varying levels at work, school, home, and around the community. Unfortunately, some people with intellectual disabilities do not have the sufficient social skills needed to connect with others easily. For example, individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find connecting and communicating with others particularly challenging.

Autism, or ASD, is a developmental condition, meaning it affects one’s ability to interact socially. As a result, sometimes individuals with ASD have a difficult time connecting with others. Oftentimes, the inability to connect with other people causes feelings of isolation and loneliness. Feeling lonely or isolated may cause an array of additional issues to arise, such as abusing substances to cope with uncomfortable feelings. In fact, researchers have found connections between substance abuse and autism.

Substance Abuse, Addiction, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Addiction (substance use disorder) is a disease characterized by an individual’s relationship with drugs or alcohol. When a person abuses substances to cope, leading to tolerance as well as physical and psychological dependency, they are considered to suffer from addiction.

Oftentimes, individuals suffering from addiction also suffer from co-occurring disorders. In particular, researchers have found that addiction and autism may be linked in some cases. To be specific, oftentimes individuals diagnosed with some form of autism or other intellectual disability (including Asperger’s Syndrome) are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than the general population.

According to the Journal of Alcoholism & Drug Dependence, nearly 7 percent of addiction treatment patients also have an autism diagnosis (as compared to 1 percent of the general population).

Also, a study in Sweden has confirmed that individuals diagnosed with autism who have average or above-average intelligence quotients (IQs) are more than twice as likely to become addicted to substances than their peers.

Important Aspects of Addiction Treatment for Individuals with ASD

If you or a loved one are diagnosed with both addiction and autism, you require dual-diagnosis treatment. Dealing with the effects of both conditions poses different needs for treatment to be effective. As a result, it is vital that people with autism find an addiction treatment facility that caters to dual-diagnosis patients. In doing so, the patient will receive a full-continuum of care for both their substance abuse and autism spectrum disorder, as well as any other underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.

Fortunately, many substance abuse treatment facilities have begun to include treatment options and resources for patients diagnosed with ASD. These facilities will focus on helping the patient learn to cope with their ASD symptoms without feeling the need to resort to substance abuse.

While substance abuse treatment for individuals diagnosed with autism is not much different than traditional treatment, some aspects may differ slightly. For example, some patients may be required to attend less group therapy sessions as a response to a common symptom of ASD, where individuals are more sensitive to social situations than others. Instead of requiring group therapy sessions, patients with ASD are typically allowed to engage as often as they feel comfortable.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is known as the most common form of addiction treatment therapy. Simply put, CBT typically involves a patient discussing their life and current issues with their therapist. When these issues are discussed, the therapist will help a patient identify maladaptive patterns of behavior related to substance abuse. This allows individuals diagnosed with autism and substance abuse to identify and alter the patterns of behavior that cause them to abuse drugs or alcohol.

Additionally, this form of talk therapy has been proven effective for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. CBT may help patients to improve or manage anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions or behaviors. Due to the spectrum of conditions this form of therapy is effective in treating, addiction treatment facilities typically offer CBT as part of their treatment plan.

Individualized Treatment Plans for Patients

Patients diagnosed with the dual-diagnosis of substance use disorder and autism should be provided with an individualized treatment plan that caters to all of their unique needs. When creating a treatment plan, healthcare specialists should be knowledgeable on all conditions the patient suffers from, as well as the particular needs of the person.

Additional important aspects of addiction treatment for individuals diagnosed with ASD include:

  • Completing individual assessments of each patient to ensure everyone’s needs are met.
  • Doctors treating patients with ASD for addiction should not solely rely on group performance, rather, encourage individual achievements.
  • Train medical, psychological, and all additional staff about the specific needs of patients with ASD.
  • Provide multiple forms of education methods for patients to learn, such as audio and visual.
  • Allow patients with ASD and addiction adequate alone time.
  • Never force a patient with ASD to participate in an activity they aren’t comfortable with.
  • Bring in an ASD specialist to work with patients diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Begin Treatment for Substance Abuse and Autism Today

At Carolina Recovery Center, we are trained and qualified to treat addiction while remaining sensitive to the needs of patients with autism. By employing specialists and educating the entire staff, our treatment facility is equipped to help patients manage their symptoms of ASD and substance use disorder. Most importantly, our staff is determined to dismantle any existing stigmas that hinder the diagnosis or treatment of ASD and addiction.

If you or a loved one are diagnosed with autism and need treatment for substance abuse, contact us today to get a head-start in your recovery.