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Autism Acceptance Month: Autismand Substance Abuse

Recovery from substance abuse is an often strenuous and difficult journey, but this journey is even more difficult for those who fall on the autism spectrum. Originally, it was assumed that substance use disorders occurred very rarely in autistic individuals, but recent studies have proven the opposite.

According to a study from the University of Cambridge, autistic individuals are nine times more likely to develop a dependency on recreational drugs as a form of self-medication for reducing sensory overload as well as mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and others of the sort.

Research and Findings

Researchers theorize that this link between autism and addiction may be due to differences in brain wiring that cause unique behaviors and needs in autistic individuals. These are some findings:

Sensory Overload

Also known as “overstimulation”, sensory overload occurs when an autistic person’s brain takes in more input through their senses than they can process. When the brain reaches its limit, it reacts to the situation like a crisis and often enters “fight or flight” mode. This response is uncontrollable and incredibly distressing, sometimes even traumatizing depending on the severity. Unfortunately, the world is filled to the brim with overwhelming stimuli with often little to no accommodations for autistic people, which is likely why many autistic people turn to substance usage to cope.

Mental Health

Mental health issues are also incredibly common on autistic people. Being autistic often means constant social isolation and ostracization. autistic people communicate differently, and struggle with many social rules like eye contact and facial expressions. They also engage in behaviors called “stimming”, repetitive motions or vocalizations that help us stay engaged in understimulating or stressful environments. These behaviors often make them targets for teasing and judgment from our peers. As a result, autistic people often develop chronic mental health conditions, and some feel tempted to utilize substances as a form of self-medication.

Why Seeking Treatment Is Difficult

Seeking help can be a challenging ordeal for autistic people. As mentioned before, socialization is difficult for autistics, and many struggle reaching out to others due to fears of rejection and bullying. Treatment facilities are often not an option, since they can be full of harmful stimuli such as bright lights, and crowds. Many treatment facilities are ill-equipped to accommodate the needs of autistic people, so it is usually better to begin recovery at home.

Autistic-Friendly Treatment Options

In order to create a safe and supportive environment that encourages recovery for all, the recovery process needs to take into consideration each person’s unique needs. Here are a few treatment options that can be beneficial for the recovery process for autistics:

  1. Routine Disruption: Substance abuse is often integrated into the daily routines that provide autistics with comfort and structure. It is best to consider replacing substance use with a different activity that provides the same feeling of routine and structure. Disrupting the routine can be jarring at first, but the key is to be gentle and patient.

  2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This type of therapy helps challenge negative patterns of thought, and eventually alter unwanted behavior as well as treat mental illness. Consider looking for a therapist who specializes in people on the autism spectrum and has adjusted their treatment plan accordingly. Many therapists offer virtual meetings that can be held in the comfort of your own home, which can help reduce stressors that come with going to an unfamiliar place.

  3. Mindfulness: Mindfulness meditation is a technique originally derived from Buddhist practices where one becomes aware of their surroundings and inner state. By practicing mindfulness, you can help reduce stress and interrupt maladaptive tendencies.


The link between autism and addiction is something that should not go unnoticed. Autistic people need unique and individualized treatment that accommodates their needs in order to have a successful recovery.

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