Autistic Individuals More Likely to Self-Medicate for Mental Health Symptoms

Medical Conditions Associated with Autism

Autistic Individuals More Likely to Self-Medicate for Mental Health Symptoms

Feeding and eating problems affect around 7 10 children with autism.

These issues can include extremely restricted food habits and aversions to certain tastes and textures. Many adults with autism wise describe food aversions and restricted eating patterns.

These challenges often stem from autism-related hypersensitivities and/or a strong need for sameness.

Chronic overeating leading to obesity is another challenge. It can stem from an inability to sense when “full” and/or eating as a soothing sensory behavior.

Pica – the eating of non-food items – is a particularly dangerous tendency often associated with autism. It appears to be most common among those severely affected by autism. See ATN/AIR-P’s Pica: A Guide for Parents.

Many autism clinics – such as those in the Autism Speaks ATN – have specialized feeding programs staffed by behavioral therapists and nutritionists. Outside such programs, some speech, behavioral and occupational therapists can help.

You can find helpful strategies in Exploring Feeding Behavior in Autism

Autism and disrupted sleep

Over half of children with autism – and possibly as many as four in five – have one or more chronic sleep problems.

Many adults on the spectrum wise have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep through the night. These sleep issues tend to worsen behavioral challenges, interfere with learning and decrease overall quality of life.

Researchers with the Autism Speaks ATN have developed and tested autism-specific strategies for improving sleep. These can be found in three ATN/AIR-P guidebooks:

Autism and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD affects an estimated 30 to 60 percent of people with autism, versus6 to 7 percent of the general population.

ADHD involves a persistent pattern of inattention, difficulty remembering things, trouble with managing time, organizational tasks, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity that interferes with learn and daily life.

Symptoms of ADHD can overlap with those of autism. As a result, ADHD can be difficult to distinguish in someone on the spectrum.

If you suspect that you or your child has autism and ADHD, we recommend evaluation by a specialist familiar with both conditions. If the evaluation confirms ADHD, ask your healthcare provider to help you tailor a treatment plan appropriate to you or your child’s needs.

Treatment may include behavioral strategies and in some cases medication for ADHD.

Autism and anxiety

Anxiety disorders affect up to 42 percent of people with autism. By contrast, they affect an estimated 3 percent of children and 15 percent of adults in the general population.

Because people with autism may have trouble assessing and expressing how they fell, behavior often provides the best clues in those experiencing anxiety. Anxiety can trigger racing heart, muscle tightness and stomaches, some people may event feel frozen in place.

Social anxiety – or extreme fear of new people, crowds and social situations – is especially common among people with autism. In addition, many people with autism have difficulty controlling anxiety once something triggers it.

Anxiety can be triggered at different points in time and by different activities – including some that were previously enjoyable.

Anxiety can be diagnosed by a medical professional.

Treatments include behavioral interventions  including cognitive behavioral therapy programs adapted for people with autism. In some cases anti-anxiety medication may also be helpful.

Autism and depression

Depression affects an estimated 7 percent of children and 26 percent of adults with autism. By contrast, it affects around 2 percent of children and 7 percent of adults in the general population.

Depression rates for people with autism rise with age and intellectual abiltiy.Autism-related communication challenges can mask depression.

Telltale signs can include loss of interest in once-favorite activities, a noticeable worsening in hygiene,chronic feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness and irritability.

At its most serious, depression can include frequent thoughts about death and/or suicide.

If you suspect that you or your child with autism is depressed, we urge you to seek evaluation and treatment.

Treatments may include cognitive behavioral therapy and in some cases anti-depressional medications.

Also see: What's the connection between autism and depression?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Research suggests that OCD is more common among teens and adults with autism than it is in the general population.

However, it can be difficult to distinguish OCD symptoms from the repetitive behaviors and restricted interests that are a hallmark of autism.

If you suspect that you or your child has developed OCD in addition to autism, we encourage you to seek evaluation by a mental health provider who has experience with both conditions.

Also see: A parent wonders: Are new repetitive behaviors OCD or ‘just autism’

Autism and Schizophrenia

Autism and schizophrenia both involve challenges with processing language and understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings.

Clear differences include schizophrenia’s psychosis which often involves hallucinations.

In addition, autism’s core symptoms typically emerge between ages 1 -3 years; schizophrenia emerges in early adulthood.

Treatments: Anti-psychotic medications

Autism and Bipolar Disorder

People with bipolar disorder tend to alternate between a frenzied state known as mania and episodes of depression.

It is important to understand the symptoms of true bipolar disorder from those of autism by looking at when the symptoms appeared and how long they lasted.

For example, a child with autism may be consistently high-energy and socially intrusive through childhood.

As such, her tendency to talk to strangers and make inappropriate comments are ly part of her autism, and not a symptom of a manic mood swing.

Treatments: Some of the medications used to treat bipolar disorder can be problematic for some with autism who has difficulty recognizing and expressing feelings. A psychiatrist can provide additional medications that may be safer.

Some of these conditions are described more extensively in Autism and Health: A special report by Autism Speaks.

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Autistic adults are more ly to self-medicate | MHT

Autistic Individuals More Likely to Self-Medicate for Mental Health Symptoms

Content warning: This article briefly mentions suicidal ideation.

The findings of the study conducted by the Autism Research Centre found that autistic adults were nearly nine times more ly to report that they use recreational drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines, to manage unwanted behaviours and feelings, including those related to their neurodiversity.

  • See also: 'I need urgent help'

“Our current systems are still not meeting [the] mark”

Drugs were reportedly being used to reduce sensory overload and to seemingly control their behaviours related to their neurodiversity, among other reasons. Previous research has shown that this form of behaviour management, known as camouflaging, has been linked to emotional exhaustion, worse mental health outcomes, and even increased risk of suicide among autistic adults.

Autistic individuals were also three times more ly to respond that they were using substances to manage feelings of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Many participants explicitly noting that they were using drugs for self-medication.

On the other hand, Autistic adults were less ly than their non-autistic peers to use substances overall. Only 16% of autistic adults reported drinking three or more days a week than 22% of non-autistic adults. And only 4% of autistic adults said they binge drink compared to 8% of non-autistic adults.

Elizabeth Weir, the lead author of the study, said of the findings: «It is evident that the current systems of health and social care support are not meeting the needs of many autistic teenagers and adults.”

«No one should feel that they need to self-medicate for these issues without guidance from a healthcare professional.”

“Identifying new forms of effective support is urgent considering the complex associations between substance use, mental health, and behaviour management — particularly as camouflaging and compensating behaviours are associated with suicide risk among autistic individuals.»

Drug misuse linked to experiences of vulnerability and abuse

Another area of concern highlighted by the research was the association between vulnerability and the use of recreational drugs. Autistic individuals were over four times more ly to report the use of substances to cope with trauma and associations linked to dependency and addiction.

Furthermore, the study highlighted two new areas of vulnerability: being forced or tricked into taking drugs; and childhood use of substances.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre and a member of the team, commented: «We continue to see new areas in which autistic adults experience vulnerability: mental health, physical health, suicide risk, lifestyle patterns, the criminal justice system, and so on.”

“It is essential that we ensure that autistic people have equal access to high quality social and healthcare that can appropriately support their specific needs.”

“Unfortunately, it seems clear that our current systems are still not meeting this mark.”

  • See also: 'Are autism and ADHD symptoms of the same underlying condition?'

Autistica responds to the report

Dr Lorcan Kenny, Head of Research at Autistica, the UK’s national autism research charity, urged caution to the study’s findings, saying that there could be other reasons behind the responses detailed in the research. Although, he also commented that if the results are genuine and can be replicated, the findings should send “a powerful message” that mental health support for autistic people must be improved.

«This study shows that autistic people are less ly than non-autistic people to engage in risky behaviour with alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. When asked about drug use, autistic people were more ly than non-autistic survey respondents to mention using drugs to manage their behaviour or mental health.”

“As with any study survey responses, it is possible that autistic people were more honest when reporting that they have engaged in illegal behaviour than non-autistic respondents.»

“However, if the results of this study are true, this sends a powerful message that we must improve the support that autistic people receive for their mental health and social difficulties. If we don't, this study suggests that autistic people may turn to unregulated and potentially life-threatening alternatives.»

Anyone can contact Samaritans FREE any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email visit the Samaritans website.


Asperger’s And Addiction: Co-Occurring Disorders

Autistic Individuals More Likely to Self-Medicate for Mental Health Symptoms

Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is a developmental disorder that is part of the autism spectrum disorder category. An estimated one 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 abuse will ly need a specialized treatment program to cope with their conditions.

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 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 ly 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 Abuse 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 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 abuse 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 abuse
  • 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 abuse and other problems.

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


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