Autism and Addiction

When a client is first admitted to Sierra by the Sea, they go through a thorough evaluation.

Often times co-occurring disorders are found in addicts. Many addicts use alcohol and drugs as a method to self-medicate their pre-existing conditions, one of which is Autism. However, new research shows that the same genes that are precursors for alcoholism may also be linked to autism.


Alcoholism in some people can be linked to a gene that also causes autism, found a recent study conducted in London. A gene called Autism Susceptibility Candidate 2 (AUTS2) was associated with alcoholism. The study which gathered data from 26,316 participants from 12 European populations tracked how much alcohol each person consumed daily. The subjects DNA was then examined for the AUTS2 gene. The researchers also used boozing mice to find out whether rodents with the AUTS2 gene hit the bottle harder: A statistically significant association between amounts of alcohol consumed and AUTS2 gene expression was noted. The gene was found to be present in a higher-than-average number of alcoholic mice, as well as people. Scientists estimate that around 40% of alcoholics carry a genetic predisposition to their addiction. The study isn’t the first to note a high incidence of alcoholism in families with autism, but the genetic evidence it uncovered is new. It’s hoped that the latest discoveries will aid understanding of the hereditary mechanisms that influence both alcoholism and autism


According to the National Institute of Mental Health 3.4 out of every 1,000 children ages 3 to 10 have autism. However, even with years of study, we still don’t know what causes this disorder or how to cure it. Instead, parents of autistic children are left devoting their entire lives to managing the syndrome through things like diet, therapy, and sensory training.

Autism is now diagnosed along a spectrum, depending on how well the individual can function in society. The lowest autistic patients live locked in their own world, unable to communicate effectively with society. Some may be nonverbal; others can only communicate basic needs.

As we move along the autism spectrum, some people can function rather well in society. They speak easily and may have a high IQ, but even these autistic individuals lack the ability to fully relate to other people. They may be obsessive about certain topics, or cannot feel empathy for another person, or just can’t seem to find the right words to connect with peers. Someone who is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum may seem just like everyone else at first, may go to school or hold a job like other people, but they never really feel like other people do.


Children with high-functioning autism spend their entire childhood trying to fit in. Other children usually notice something is a little different and may tease or simply ignore the person. This leaves the autistic child feeling depressed or socially inept. Sometimes they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, just like many other people do. Someone who is on the autism spectrum may feel that drinking or doing drugs will take their pain away, much like someone whose relationship with a spouse is deteriorating may use drugs or alcohol to take their troubles away.

Dangers of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is dangerous for anyone, but someone with autism may face more risks when they try drugs or alcohol. Autism Spectrum Disorder often affects the skills that are needed to use drugs and alcohol sensibly and safely – social skills, insight, organization and understanding what is appropriate behavior in a given context. Drugs may also have a different effect on autistic brains, making them more dangerous to the user. Parents of autistic young adults should be especially aware of what their child is doing. If they suspect their child is abusing drugs or alcohol, they should consult a professional who is knowledgeable about autism for help.

Recovering from substance use disorders is a challenging journey that feels more doable in an environment that tends to each individual’s complex needs and strengths. Our goal is to foster a treatment experience that is built on compassion, hope, and caring, and fueled by excellence in the provision of evidence-based and trauma-informed care.

– Michelle Beaudoin, MA, MFA, NCC, CADC-II
Marks of Quality Care
These accreditations are an official recognition of our dedication to providing treatment that exceeds the standards and best practices of quality care.
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)
  • California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP)
  • Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF)

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