What Is Autism?

The combination of autism and addiction requires specialized care and understanding. Harmony Ridge Recovery Center is here to offer both.


Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is considered a developmental disability caused by differences in a person’s brain. Some individuals acquire a familiar biological difference, known as a genetic condition. Though the other differences aren’t well-known, scientists believe that there are several causes of ASD. Because of the genetic and behavioral differences that people with autism experience, many people who suffer from autism often feel ostracized from society. To cope with this ostracization, many autistic individuals may start abusing substances. As a result, autism and addiction often co-occur.

Scientists feel that cases of autism act together to alter the most common ways that individuals develop ASD. When individuals have ASD, they might communicate, behave, learn, and interact in ways that are considered different from other people. Overall, the abilities of ASD vary greatly.

For example, some individuals with ASD might have advanced conversion skills, whereas other people might be nonverbal. Individuals with ASD need help in their lives daily; whereas others can live and work with little to no support. ASD can begin before the age of three and persist throughout a person’s life, although symptoms may gradually improve.

Some children show symptoms of autism within the first 12 months of life, while others might not show symptoms of autism until 24 months of age. Some children with ASD gain new skills and meet development milestones until 18 to 24 months of age. Then they stop gaining the new skills or lose the skills that they had.

Difficulties That Autistic Individuals Experience


As children with ASD become adolescents and young adults, they might experience difficulties in the following areas:

  • Understanding what behaviors are excepted on the job or in school
  • Developing and maintaining friendships
  • Communicating with adults and peers

Individuals with ASD might come to the attention of healthcare providers because they also have conditions such as:

  • Attention-deficit/hypersensitivity disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

The above-mentioned conditions occur more often in individuals with ASD than in those who don’t have the disorder. Autism is diagnosed as a “developmental disorder” because the symptoms typically appear in the first two years of life.


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What Is the Guide for Autism?


According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-5), the guide created by the American Psychiatric Association indicates:

People with ASD often have the following:

  • Symptoms that affect their ability to function in work, school, and other areas of life
  • Difficulties with interaction and communication with other people
  • Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests

Autism is known as the “spectrum” disorder because of the extensive variation in the severity and type of symptoms experienced.  There are people of all races, ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and genders that can be diagnosed with ASD. Though ASD is a long-lasting disorder, there are services and treatments geared to improve a person’s daily functioning and symptoms.

It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that all children receive screening for autism. The caregivers should speak to their child’s health care provider about ASD screening or evaluation.

autism and addiction


Signs and Symptoms of Autism

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The list below will explain the signs and symptoms of autism. Not every individual with ASD will have these behaviors, but most of them will have several. The signs and symptoms of autism:

Social Communication and Interaction Behaviors
  • Having trouble understanding another person’s point of view or being unable to understand or predict other people’s actions 
  • Talking lengthy about a favorite subject without noticing that others aren’t interested or without giving others a chance to respond
  • Infrequently sharing emotion, interest, and/or enjoyment of activities or objects, this includes showing and pointing things out to others. 
  • Not responding or being slow to respond to one’s name or other verbal bids for attention 
  • Displaying movements, gestures, and facial expressions that don’t match what is being said
  • Having an unusual tone of voice that might sound flat, robot-like, and/or sing-song
  • Difficulties sharing in imaginative play and making friends
  • Appearing not to look at or listen to the people who are talking
  • Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversation 
  • Difficulties adjusting behaviors to social situations
  • Making little to inconsistent eye contact
Repetitive and Restrictive Behaviors
  • Being more sensitive or less sensitive than others in sensory input such as sound, clothing, temperature, or light
  • Repeating certain behaviors or having abnormal behaviors such as repeating phrases or words (a behavior called echolalia)
  • Becoming upset by slight changes in a routine and having difficulties with transitions
  • Having a long-lasting and intense interest in specific topics, such as details, facts, or numbers
  • Showing overly focused interests, such as parts of objects or moving objects
Individuals with autism have interaction and social problems often, along with repetitive or restrictive interests and behaviors. People with ASD might also have various ways of moving, learning, or paying attention. It’s ideal to note that individuals without ASD might also have some of these symptoms.  When people have ASD, the characteristics can make life more challenging. Some individuals might also experience irritability and sleep issues. There are many strengths of those with ASD:
  • Being able to learn detailed things and remember information for a long period of time
  • Excelling in science, music, art, and math
  • Being strong auditory and visual learners

Autism and Substance Abuse Connection


Until more recently, research has indicated that autism and addiction are rare, though there isn’t much evidence for this view. Individuals with autism like following strict rules, which seems to make them less likely to engage in substance abuse. Since those with autism are normally isolated from their peers, this would protect them from peer pressure.

Many people diagnosed with autism decades ago had more severe features. A person who isn’t able to live independently has fewer opportunities to become addicted. A new Sweden study suggested the following statistic:

People with autism who have average or above-average intelligence quotients (IQs) are twice as likely to become addicted. This is to alcohol or other drugs than their peers are. Overall, the risk is even higher for individuals who also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The above-mentioned statistic is considered the first study to look at the general risk for addiction among individuals with autism. Other research finds unexpected psychological and biological commonalities between the two conditions. Patrick Rothwell, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in Minneapolis suggested the following:

“These two fields have developed independently, but I think there could be a lot of cross-fertilization.” In 2016, Rothwell opened up a lab that focused on studying the behavioral and biological parallels between autism and addiction. There are similarities in the way that individuals with either condition utilize repetitive behaviors to cope with emotional problems.

Also, compulsions and impulsivity are similar as well. The two conditions affect a few of the same brain regions and also involve a few of the same genes. These connections are stimulating a new area of research that could help improve autism and substance abuse, with treatment prevention.


Autism and Addiction With Alcoholism


Traditionally, doctors didn’t think that autism and addiction often co-occurred. In more recent times, the overall line of thinking about this has changed though. Doctors have identified that autism and addiction co-occur at much higher rates than previously thought.

Similarly, doctors have thought that individuals with the spectrum have lower rates of alcohol addictionthan those who don’t. Since there are different levels of ASD, some autistic individuals are better at concealing their alcohol-consuming behaviors than others. Or these same individuals might use alcohol medications such as anxiety-relieving ones to cover up their alcoholic and addiction symptoms.


Are Substance Use Disorders Symptoms of Autism?


Usually, substance use disorders aren’t symptoms of autism. Individuals with autism are more likely to experience other symptoms, which might include:

  • Poor social functioning
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Eccentric behavior
  • Fixed habits
  • Anxiety

Sometimes, autism symptoms can resemble other conditions such as social anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder. It can be challenging to sort these conditions from issues that are caused by autism and substance abuse. According to an article in the journal, Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment, the following was stated:

Doctors are aware that an estimated 29.5 million people in the US struggle with substance abuse. Of that estimated number, 23% have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The more intelligent, confident, and sociable a person is, the more likely that person might struggle with autism and alcoholism. When individuals are socially withdrawn, they’re less likely to experience an alcohol issue. Less social individuals will show a weaker link between autism and addiction.

For a lengthy time, doctors believed that having an ASD was protective against alcohol addiction due to the number of alcoholics. The number of individuals who abuse alcohol often do so to interact with the outside world by building social networks. Engagement of being in social circles allows those with ASD to feel more like they fit in with other people.

Individuals with autism might exhibit more “normal” behavior to the outside world, which they think allows them to maintain better relationships or even succeed more in their careers. However, this can make the diagnosis and treatment of autism and substance abuse harder.

Autism and Addiction Connection

People with ASD generally don’t have “sensation-seeking” behaviors which is one of the leading indicators of addiction. There are some individuals with ASD that still might seek thrills which can contribute to autism and addiction connection. Those with autism who are more introverted will be less likely to engage in social behaviors, including drinking.

Since individuals with autism tend to have traits that are centered around social rigidity, peer pressure isn’t usually an issue. However, there are some with ASD that might experience a massive amount of pressure, depression, and anxiety about fitting in. These individuals might give in to peer pressure in an attempt to act or feel more like those around them.

When individuals have autism, they often experience difficulties relating to the outside world. As a result, they might feel excluded and not know how to include themselves or relate to others. When this happens, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol as a way to deal with depression, isolation, and anxiety might occur.

A complicating factor is an individual with autism might respond to a petition to stop drinking immediately without consequences. Therefore, when a loved one expresses concern about drinking, the autistic individual might stop without treatment, which can be deadly. Attending a treatment facility that assists in overcoming substance use while minimizing withdrawal symptoms is key.

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Treatment for Autism and Addiction at Harmony Ridge


Studies have suggested an intriguing statement that neurochemical connections exist between autism and addiction. Since individuals with ASD are likely to retreat, the oxycontin found in drugs helps addiction to be a place of solace. Even though it can be challenging to struggle with autism and substance use, it’s not impossible.

Given the difficulties of sociability with those with autism, individualized care might pose a more ideal option than group therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy will be a beneficial way to educate those struggling with autism and addiction on their behaviors and thoughts.

To receive treatment for autism and addiction, consider care at Harmony Ridge Recovery Center. Here at Harmony Ridge, we make sure to cater our treatment programs to each of our patient’s individual needs. We also make sure to treat any co-occurring mental illnesses that may co-occur with our patients’ addictions. Thus, you can rest assured that you will receive all of the treatment that you need at our rehab facility. To learn more about Harmony Ridge and the treatment programs that we have to offer, contact us today.

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