Autism has marked itself as a controversial topic in today’s society. With more questions than answers over the spectrum disorder, the discussion of its causes and obscurity in research still perplexes society to this day.
But now with studies revealing potential links between autism and alcoholism, as well as substance abuse, questions are being brought up about what this could mean for the hereditary conditions and if this may lead to pinpointing a key to either condition.
Autism in a Nutshell
Autism is a developmental disorder with many complexities to its definition, but which is known at its core to be a brain abnormality that affects social and communication skills, as well as develops a strong pattern of repetitive behaviors, interests, and activities. Neurologically, autism is the result of when different parts of the brain fail to work together, or rather, they work in a way different from the norm—hence why you might have heard someone say that people who are autistic are “wired different.”
There is no real clear-cut definition of autism, however, as its manifestation can come in many forms, thus why it is notably known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to showcase that are various levels of autism that can presented in an individual.
Autism as a Spectrum Disorder
To note why autism is regarded as a wide-spectrum disorder lies in the fact that there are various symptoms that can indicate autism, but which can still result in a high-functioning individual.
Most signs of autism present themselves in the individual in early childhood, usually within the first 18 months, which can then diagnose the individual into three main categories: Classic Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Atypical Autism (Pervasive Developmental Disorder). Autism is four times more common in boys than girls, but it can affect children of all races.
Those with Classic Autism tend to lie on the more severe side of the autistic spectrum, while Asperger’s Syndrome and Atypical Autism can range or change as the child grows into adulthood. In fact, those in the category of Atypical Autism may meet the criteria of autism, but their symptoms might be so mild that they are never officially diagnosed.
As to what causes autism, that remains to be a mystery. For the most part, the causes for autism are unknown and are then referred to as “idiopathic autism.” It just happens. But in the few cases where the causes are known, it is referred to as “secondary autism,” which is usually the result of a genetic anomaly or some sort of exposure. If autism runs in the family, then the likelihood of having autistic offspring spikes up.
What Lies in the Genetics
All right, it’s time to talk about genetics and addiction.
Now, when you first hear of autism, alcoholism and substance abuse do not necessarily come to mind. Most people with autism tend to avoid any form of risky behavior and stick true to their regular routine, but recent studies have discovered links with autism and substance abuse.
Back in 2011, a study conducted in London found that alcoholism in some people was linked to a gene that carried an increased risk of autism. The gene, known as Autism Susceptibility Candidate 2 (AUTS2), expressed in “the neurons of the frontal portion of the brain, which influences alcohol impulsivity.”
This began the discussion of inherited habits and the correlation between the AUTS2 gene patterns, which if expressed highly can also indicate Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and impulsivity in alcoholism. If alcoholism can be linked to autism, then does that mean people with autism are more likely to become alcoholics and/or substance abusers?
Researchers Duneesha De Alwis, PhD, and Arpana Agrawal, PhD might say maybe.
At Washington University School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry, De Alwis and Agrawal found that people with autistic tendencies and/or ADHD symptoms were more susceptible to developing alcohol problems and/or substance abuse, such as for cigarettes and marijuana.
Their research covered 3,080 Australian twins, who showed signs of ADHD symptoms or autism spectrum disorder, but who weren’t necessarily diagnosed. Studies showed that 51% of people with six or more autistic traits smoked tobacco regularly, as compared to 37% with no autistic traits. Regarding alcohol, 35% of people with autistic tendencies were alcohol-dependent as compared 20% of people without; and for marijuana, 39% of people with autistic tendencies claimed to use marijuana often or regularly as compared to 23% of people without autistic tendencies, who reported to use marijuana more than 10 times in their lives.
The question became why?
People with autism or autistic tendencies would be assumed to be too cautious to embark the risky lifestyle of alcohol and/or substance abuse, but some researchers believe the reason lies in their internal struggle to fit in with society. A form of self-medication, those with signs of autism might turn to alcohol or other substances as a well to cope with their insecurities and alienation or to mask their social ineptness.
However, if an addicting substance is introduced to their routine, their innate nature to repeat behaviors—good or bad—might be a dangerous, slippery slope into addiction that might prove more difficult to treat than those without signs of autism.
Symptoms vs. Diagnosed
Because these past studies are still relatively new in the autism spectrum world, nothing can be truly confirmed as definitive causes and results, hence why studies were concluded as behaviors of those with autistic behaviors and not diagnoses.
People with diagnosed autism might prove too severe of a case to fall into an alcoholic and/or substance abuse pattern, but research to come would still have to answer that question. The amount of social skills needed to sustain an addiction lifestyle might be too advanced for certain individuals (e.g. finding a regular street dealer, knowing who to trust and who to ask), but for more high-functioning individuals on the autistic spectrum, the danger of addiction is plausible and something to take seriously.
While the numbers for people with autistic traits becoming substance abusers are lower than people with other psychiatric disorders, the alarm is the severity of the substance dependence. Someone with ASD who develops a habit to take mind altering substances might find themselves in a life-threatening pattern that would require extensive therapy to condition their routine impulses. It would mean monitoring them through a withdrawal process to eliminate and address the addiction and intense counseling and group sessions to establish social practices regarding the specific substance.
How difficult the recovery process could be would depend entirely on where an individual lies on the autism spectrum.
Only the Beginning to Some Answers
Again, nothing is set in stone. With all this new research, this is only the beginning in a journey to understand the complexities of autism and its relation to alcoholism and substance abuse.
Having a genetic link might be the key to unlocking potential preventions to inherited disorders and addictions. Understanding the impulses in alcoholism and autism (as well as ADHD) might lead to possible methods to controlling urges and habits in each condition. Observing the autism spectrum alongside the severity of substance dependence might reveal answers to recovery and prevention unnoticed before.
This field of genetics and neurological patterns still has many questions, but much in how autism still keeps to people society in wonder, perhaps there is an answer for alcoholism and substance abuse in the autistic puzzle.