Autism’s Connection To Substance Abuse

Autism spectrum disorders affect a growing number of children in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health, with one in 88 diagnosed each year.

A study from the Washington University School of Medicine suggests those living with autism face a higher risk of marijuana or alcohol abuse than their non-autistic peers.

Groundbreaking findings dispute past studies’ inferences

Researchers began their study by asking participants to describe their various autism-related symptoms. Cataloging and differentiating between specific symptoms at the outset of the study allowed scientists to trace to what degree specific autistically related challenges (such as repetitive behaviors or poor social skills) could in turn be linked to the abuse of marijuana or alcohol.

Up until this groundbreaking study, the general consensus among researchers had been that the obstacles to socialization with peers that autism more often presents serve as a built-in protection against the dangers of drug abuse and addiction. The conclusions of this latest study call into question these previous inferences: autistic study subjects were just as likely as their non-autistic peers to use marijuana or alcohol, and were actually more likely to become hooked.

For example, 20% of those tested without symptoms of autism qualified as alcoholics, 35% of individuals with symptoms of autism qualified. Similarly, 23% of non-autistic subjects reported using marijuana at least 10 times in their life, while 39% of autistic subjects made the same admission. In other words, autism may pose a significantly higher risk for drug abuse and addiction than previously understood.

Possible explanations for latest study findings

The wide variation in the severity of autistic symptoms may provide some explanation for these latest findings and warrants further exploration of a potential link between autism and substance abuse. One person with Asperger’s syndrome can exhibit such mild symptoms of autism that these characteristics can pose little obstacle to normal socialization with one’s peers; a different person could experience high degrees of self-isolation and an abhorrence of risky behaviors.

It is possible that the population of test subjects in the Washington University study consisted on the whole of milder cases of autism and autism spectrum disorders. Whatever the case, these latest insights beckon caution for parents of autistic children and young people with autism considering the issue of alcohol and marijuana use.

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