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Autism and alcohol misuse may seem unrelated. However, some people with autism drink in excess, though not as many as others.
Those with autism who do drink have a high risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (addiction).
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Autism refers to several developmental disorders that affect 1 in 54 children.
Autism is four times more common in boys than girls. It affects all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.1
The disorder is technically called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This means symptoms vary from one person to another. The severity of symptoms also differs depending on where someone falls on the autism spectrum.
Some conditions that used to be separately diagnosed are now a part of the autism spectrum. These include:
Autism shares similar qualities with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, ADHD is a different condition that’s not a part of the autism spectrum.
People with ASD have the same appearance as people without ASD. Their learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities may range from gifted to severely challenged.
They share common autistic traits like:3
Despite the shared traits, it is difficult to diagnose ASD. There is no medical test. Instead, doctors observe a child’s behavior and development.
Doctors can detect ASD as early as 18 months of age. However, many diagnoses are made at a later age, which can lead to delayed intervention.2
Drinking during pregnancy does not cause ASD. However, drinking can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
ASD and FAS share symptoms. This is why ASD is usually mistaken to be caused by alcohol use.3, 4
Doctors previously thought that autism and alcohol use were unrelated. However, several studies have determined that there is a connection:
Drinking affects people with ASD in different ways. Some effects may appear to be good at first. But a deeper look reveals the dangers of autism and alcohol use.
Here are five risks of drinking alcohol with autism:
People with autism typically have poor social skills. Some drink alcohol to bond with other people, build social networks, or reduce awkwardness. Adults with high-functioning autism even blend in well while drinking.
Here’s the danger: people with ASD typically repeat the same things. Drinking can become a routine. Eventually, they become alcohol-dependent. This makes the diagnosis and treatment of alcohol addiction more diffiicut.9, 10
Some people with ASD have anxiety and sensory problems. Alcohol can calm their nerves and help them be less affected by sensory stressors.11
While drinking alcohol can lessen the impact of ASD symptoms, it does not eliminate the problem. It only masks the symptoms, making it harder to diagnose and manage ASD.
People with ASD have a high tendency to use both alcohol and drugs to self-treat mental health symptoms.12 This is dangerous as self-medication increases overdose risks.
Alcohol can lead to various health risks, regardless of whether the drinker has ASD or not. These conditions include:
A person with ASD may suddenly stop drinking if they are told to stop. They may experience painful and sometimes life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, including:
Alcohol addiction and ASD have no cure. However, some approaches are available to help manage both alcohol problems and ASD symptoms.
If someone with ASD has symptoms that cause anxiety or depression, they may use antidepressants. Sometimes, medications are also prescribed to avoid further dependence.
People taking medications for ASD symptoms have a reduced risk of developing alcohol and substance use disorder. Those who received one medicine had a 40% reduced risk. Those taking multiple medications had a 63% reduction.10
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a core treatment for both ASD and alcohol addiction. It involves educating the person about alcohol addiction and the factors that keep them addicted.
CBT also deal with anxiety, which may be the cause of the person’s need for alcohol.11
However, people with and without ASD respond differently to behavioral treatments. Therapists should adjust their methods to accommodate the unique needs of a person with ASD.
Here are some treatment recommendations:8
Not all behavioral treatments work for everyone. Some approaches can even create anxiety and fear in people with ASD.
For example, people with ASD tend to drop out of 12-step programs and large self-help groups. They also don’t do well in a residential setting where they are out of their comfort zone.13
You can find helpful information about autism spectrum disorder from the following websites and organizations:
U.S.A.’s public health agency. CDC has a dedicated page for autism spectrum disorder containing basic information about treatment and intervention services.
A British organization for people with ASD and their families. It provides advice and guidance, adult residential services, employment programs, and professional development.
A national charitable organization based in the U.S. It provides phone support and hosts a free online database with information about autism-related programs and services.
An organization that provides information, practical guidance, and support for individuals with Asperger syndrome and related autism spectrum disorders.
A U.S.A.-funded program that promotes evidence-based practices for children and youth with ASD.
An organization founded and led by parents and grandparents of children with ASD. The site hosts guides and other resources for advocates and families. OAR also provides employment support and scholarships for people with ASD.
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