ADHD-Autism Risks for Substance Abuse

Significant numbers of people affected by attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also have diagnosable symptoms of autism (known more formally as autism spectrum disorder).

Doctors and researchers know that individuals with ADHD have heightened risks for involvement in some form of problematic substance use, but less is known about the cumulative effects of ADHD-Autism and the risks for substance abuse or substance addiction.

In a study published in March 2014 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, a research team from the U.S. and Australia used a large-scale, interview- and questionnaire-based project to explore this issue.

ADHD is characterized by unusually impulsive or hyperactive behavior, an unusual lack of the ability to focus attention or a combination of impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention. As a rule, the disorder first appears in early childhood. In some cases, its effects fade away in adulthood; however, previously diagnosed or undiagnosed cases of ADHD can also appear in adults. Nearly one out of every 10 U.S. teenagers under the age of 19 has symptoms that qualify them for an ADHD diagnosis, the National Institute on Mental Health reports. In addition, about 4 percent of Americans age 19 or older qualify for such a diagnosis. Four out of every five affected individuals are boys or men.

Roughly 50 percent of adults severely impacted by ADHD have diagnosable symptoms of substance abuse or substance addiction. Compared to people unaffected by the disorder, affected individuals start using alcohol, nicotine or drugs at an earlier age; develop more severe forms of addiction; and have greater problems avoiding substance use during recovery. The connection between ADHD and substance problems lies within the pleasure center in the brain, where both of these issues produce damaging changes in the balance of vital chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have developmental problems in childhood that decrease their ability to do such things as understand the nuances of social situations, communicate effectively with others and expand their behavioral repertoire beyond certain fixed or repetitive actions. Until recently, individuals severely impacted by one or more of these problems qualified for a separate diagnosis of a condition known simply as autism or autism disorder. Less severely affected individuals qualified for diagnosis of one of several possible conditions, including Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) or childhood disintegrative disorder. Many children with ASD see an improvement in their condition when they reach adulthood; however, doctors cannot cure the disorder.

Combined Effect of ADHD-Autism

In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the American and Australian researchers used interview and questionnaire information from 1,540 pairs of Australian twins to analyze the combined impact of ADHD and autism spectrum disorder on any given person’s risks for being diagnosed with substance abuse or substance addiction. On average, these twins were just under 32 years old. The interview and questionnaire data they submitted were used to identify specific ADHD symptoms, behavioral tendencies that indicate the presence of autism and problems related to the use/abuse of cannabis (marijuana, hashish), alcohol and/or nicotine-containing tobacco.

After analyzing the information, the researchers concluded that young adults more heavily affected by the combination of ADHD and autism spectrum disorder have an increased tendency to smoke cigarettes on a regular basis and use some form of cannabis. These young adults also have heightened chances of being diagnosed with substance abuse or substance addiction related to alcohol, cannabis or nicotine intake. The researchers also concluded that young adults highly affected by autism spectrum disorder actually drink to the point of drunkenness less often than their less-affected counterparts. However, when they do start drinking to the point of drunkenness, they also have heightened risks for an alcohol-related substance diagnosis.

The authors of the study believe that the relative lack of drunkenness among people affected by autism may stem from the fact that these individuals tend to avoid the social situations where a lot of alcohol consumption occurs. However, they reiterate their conclusion that autism-affected individuals who do drink heavily clearly have increased risks for becoming alcoholics. They also reiterate their conclusion that people affected by both ADHD and autism have increased chances of becoming smokers and cannabis users, as well as nicotine addicts and cannabis addicts.

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