Individuals with ASD More Prone to Use Recreational Drugs to Self-Medicate

Adults 9 x More Likely to Use Illegal Substances to Manage Unwanted Autism Symptoms

Recognizing the inconsistent findings regarding substance use among adolescents and adults with autism, a research team from the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge implemented an online survey to research the topic. Their anonymous online survey included 1,183 individuals with autism and 1203 neurotypical individuals. The survey inquired about the frequency of substance use as well self-reported experiences with drugs and alcohol. The ages of survey participants ranged from 16 to 90 years old. The results from this survey were erratic. In one aspect, there was good news. Adults with autism were less likely than people without the condition to use substances. Additionally, males with autism were less likely to have smoked or used drugs compared to neurotypical males. However, findings from this survey also showed a deep cause for concern. Despite lower rates of substance use overall, adults with autism were nearly nine times more likely than their neurotypical peers to use recreational drugs (such as marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines) to manage their unwanted mental health symptoms, including autism-related symptoms. Respondents with autism also reported using drugs to reduce sensory overload, help with mental focus, and to provide routine. Several participants on the spectrum referenced using drugs to mask their autism, also known as “camouflaging,” a behavior that has been linked to emotional exhaustion, poor mental health, and even an increased risk of suicide.  Additionally, adolescents and adults on the spectrum were three times more likely to use substances to manage anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Several adolescents and adults with autism noted that using recreational drugs allowed them to reduce the doses of prescribed medication for their mental health conditions, which gave them a welcomed break from the sometimes significant side effects that occur from their prescribed drugs. This survey picked up on two new areas not previously reported: being forced, tricked, or accidentally taking drugs and childhood use of substances (12 years or younger). The study’s authors hope that physicians will take these findings seriously and recognize that substance use among individuals on the spectrum is possible. They urge doctors to have frank conversations about the topic with their patients with autism.

Original Article

Study Abstract  

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