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Mental Health & Substance Abuse

DUAL DIAGNOSIS: Addiction and Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a varied and complex mental health condition. The number of people with undiagnosed ASD can make identifying the symptoms that lead to addiction difficult. However, with the right combination of integrated treatment recovery is possible.
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Addiction and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. As a “developmental disorder” the symptoms of ASD generally appear early in a child’s life.  Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because on a person-to-person basis, there is a large variation in the type and severity of symptoms people with ASD experience.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines the following criteria for diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder:

An addiction is a psychological or physical dependence on something, especially habit-forming drugs like cocaine or heroin. In someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it can take many forms including Behavioral and Process Addictions like Video Game Addiction or Internet Addiction.

Until recently, many clinicians assumed that substance abuse was rare amongst people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  This is partly because many studies only sampled people with more severe symptoms of ASD.  However, recent studies have shown that people with ASD may be more at risk of developing an addiction than people without ASD.  The connection between addiction and ASD is still being investigated.  However, substance abuse in the Autistic community may stem from a difficulty with emotional regulation, sensory sensitivities, and social skills deficits.

If you think a friend or loved one might benefit from professional assistance, please seek out medical professionals who are skilled and knowledgeable about these co-occurring conditions.

What Causes Someone with ASD to Develop an Addiction?

Many factors can contribute to a person with ASD developing an addiction.  Factors can include, genetics, environment, age of onset, social skills deficits, sensory processing differences, and more.

As with most instances of a Dual Diagnosis, the desire to self-medicate can create an unhealthy relationship between the individual and an addictive substance.  People with Autism Spectrum Disorder may use drugs and alcohol to mask unwanted symptoms of ASD.  For example, they may use alcohol to cover up sensory overload or take cannabis to calm their thoughts.  This phenomenon is also known as camouflaging, or behavioral adaptations that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) use to mask symptoms during social situations. 

People with mental health disorders like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, or Bipolar Disorder may need some assistance in managing their symptoms.  The symptoms associated with these disorders can lead a person to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances.  This can prolong the cycle of addiction by triggering the desire to use.  If a person is abusing their prescription medication or augmenting their medication with recreational drugs they may develop a dependence more quickly than a person without a similar mental health diagnosis.

People who have a dual diagnosis with ADHD and Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are especially susceptible to addiction.  A 2016 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that of the ASD population surveyed, the highest rate of individuals who abused substances was the group with comorbid conditions with ADHD.

How to Help Someone In This Situation

There are a lot of ways to get help for someone with both Autism Spectrum Disorder and addiction.  There are a number of Autism Support Groups that can be attended both in-person and virtually.  There are also mental health professionals who can address this issue, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, or substance abuse counselors.

The first step is usually identifying the presence of an addiction.  Then it may be discerned whether this addiction is a result of environmental factors (such as being bullied), sensory processing differences that create intense cravings, or other mental health disorders.

The next step is to help the person find a therapist that can address their addiction. This might be an addiction specialist, someone who deals with addictive behaviors, or a residential treatment facility. It’s important to have a professional on board so that the addicted individual doesn’t relapse and wind up in worse shape than before.

Lastly, consider some of these options for coping skills: learning new ways to cope with stressors (like anxiety), working on social skills deficits such as empathy and impulse control, taking care of physical needs through exercises like yoga or other calming activities.

What Is Treatment Like for Someone With Addiction & Autism?

Addiction treatment for those with ASD might have to be different from others. Therapy will likely take place in a group format as well as one-on-one, and it may include other people who also have autism spectrum disorder so they can feel included.

It’s important to get help and find support, whether this means reaching out to friends or family members, attending AA meetings, going on medication if needed (like antidepressants), or connecting socially by finding groups online where the person feels comfortable sharing their experiences.

These are the most applicable treatment types:

The appropriate addiction treatment plan will depend on the unique circumstances of the individual who requires treatment.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment, however, an addiction treatment professional can offer some insights to give an individual the best chance at lasting recovery.

Why We're One Best Dual Diagnosis Treatment Centers

Handpicked by Dr. Phil, New Method Wellness is a premier dual diagnosis addiction treatment center dually accredited by The Joint Commission and CARF International. It has been singled out as one of the best drug and alcohol rehab centers in America, offering a unique 3:1 staff-to-client ratio that pairs every client with two therapists instead of one.

At New Method Wellness, we add another dimension to dual diagnosis treatment, and that is the integration of holistic therapy, such as massage/acupuncture therapy, equine therapy, and art therapy. As addiction therapists and substance abuse counselors work with clients to treat the substance use disorder and the co-occurring illness associated with it, holistic therapy adds meaning to life after treatment and sustains long-term recovery. Our 3:1 staff-to-client ratio ensures client success after treatment, as evidenced by our Extended Aftercare program.

For more information about New Method Wellness’s treatment programs, call 866-951-1824

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