Autism and Alcohol

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Autism spectrum disorder, also known as ASD, is a neurological disorder that impacts how individuals behave, learn, and interact with others. 1 in 44 children are diagnosed with ASD, with boys being 4 times more likely to experience ASD as opposed to girls. (1) Like other developmental disorders, ASD is often diagnosed within the early stages of life, though it can be diagnosed at any age. Characteristics of ASD are found on a spectrum, with symptoms varying depending on the individual.

Those with ASD often engage in substance use in order to self-medicate. Individuals with ASD are twice as likely to experience substance use disorders than those without ASD. (2) Alcohol use is one substance that those with ASD often consume. There are many reasons why one may consume alcohol, such as environmental or biological factors. (3) Alcohol dependence can be developed with daily or excessive alcohol use, leading to alcohol use disorder. (4)

Guardian Recovery can help if you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing alcohol use disorder. Our individualized and dual-diagnosis options offer evidence-based mental health treatment. With available intervention services and medical detox provided by experienced professionals, we are dedicated to your recovery.

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Prevalence of Alcohol Use & Autism

Alcohol use was found to be more prevalent in those diagnosed with ASD than neurotypical individuals. A study of 237 autistic participants found that 70.2% engaged in alcohol use. (5) Alcohol use is not just reserved for adults with ASD. Adolescents with ASD were found to engage in alcohol use, reporting that it aids them in experiencing a positive mood, feeling more accepted by others, and coping with their difficulties. (6) It has also been found that individuals with ASD who try alcohol are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder. (7) Using alcohol to cope with distressing thoughts or emotions can lead to regular alcohol use. Research has also shown that those experiencing ASD may experience other mental health disorders, such as anxiety and psychotic disorders, (8) This may increase the prevalence of an individual drinking due to them using alcohol as a way to decrease unwanted symptoms and to temporarily increase happy emotions.

Is Alcohol Use a Symptom of Autism?

ASD consists of a wide variety of symptoms ranging from mild, moderate, to severe. Many of the symptoms revolve around communication, learning, and behavioral aspects. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, ASD impacts social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning. (9) Characteristics of ASD may include: (10)

  • Impairments in social communication: Difficulties interacting, responding, and communicating during social interactions. Difficulties understanding and producing nonverbal communication. Difficulties establishing and maintaining relationships.
  • Repetitive or unusual behaviors: Engaging in repetitive movements and fixations. Discomfort and difficulties when things are not consistent. Difficulties when experiencing loud noises and certain textures. Experiencing an indifference to pain.
  • Hyperactive and/or impulsive behaviors.

Though alcohol use is not a specific symptom of ASD, it is often co-occurring. Many individuals engage in heavy alcohol use to aid with symptoms associated with anxiety and the negative social interactions related to ASD. Alcohol use can quickly become an unhealthy coping strategy when used to aid with any symptoms associated with mental health difficulties.

It is important to receive appropriate behavioral testing and developmental screenings, done by a licensed professional, before a diagnosis of ASD can be given. The symptoms associated with ASD can also be found in those without ASD, making it necessary to receive a medical diagnosis rather than self-diagnosing.

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Does Alcohol Affect or Cause Autism?

Alcohol use can cause many health concerns, however, ASD has not been found to be one of them. No relationship has been found between mothers drinking and a diagnosis of ASD. Aside from there being brain differences, the exact cause of autism is unknown.

Despite the fact that alcohol does not cause ASD, it is often used as a coping mechanism for those experiencing ASD. Since alcohol depresses the central nervous system, it can reduce sensory issues and anxiety symptoms in those with ASD. (11) Though alcohol use may cause short-term resolutions, it may inhibit functions that are already impaired in those with ASD, such as cognitive functioning. (12) Alcohol use in individuals with ASD may make it increasingly difficult to engage in normative behaviors, understand the consequences of negative actions, and increase health concerns. (13)

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome & Autism

Fetal alcohol syndrome is characterized by central nervous system deficits, growth difficulties, and specific facial features. Fetal alcohol syndrome is caused by alcohol traveling through the umbilical cord to the fetus following a pregnant individual engaging in alcohol use. (14) Though two uniquely separate conditions, ASD and fetal alcohol syndrome share similar characteristics and symptoms. These symptoms include: (15)

  • Sensory processing issues.
  • Cognitive impairments.
  • Executive function impairments or difficulties with planning, focusing, and multitasking.
  • Social communication impairments or difficulties with speech and language.

Though there are similarities between ASD and fetal alcohol syndrome, there are some differences as well. Children with fetal alcohol syndrome tend to engage more in nonverbal communication and facial expressions while interacting with others, when compared to those with ASD. 79% of children with ASD had nonverbal IQs that were higher than those with fetal alcohol syndrome. (16) Those with ASD were also found to be not as overly friendly during social interactions as compared to those with fetal alcohol syndrome. (17)

Fetal alcohol syndrome and ASD can simultaneously be diagnosed in an individual if criteria for both are met.

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Autism & Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Treatment for ASD focuses on reducing the negative symptoms that are associated with it. Early interventions have been found to provide positive long-term outcomes in terms of ASD treatment. (18) Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is the first line of treatment for ASD. CBT teaches individuals to engage in positive thinking and behaviors. (19) Other therapeutic interventions can also help aid those with ASD in reducing their anxiety and engaging in positive social interactions. If experiencing any co-occurring mental health disorders, medication may be prescribed. Alcohol use disorder is also treated with therapeutic interventions such as CBT. Medication may also be prescribed for alcohol use disorder treatment to aid with the negative symptoms associated with detoxification or withdrawal.

If you engage in excessive or chronic drinking, you may be experiencing a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol, or alcohol use disorder. Here at Guardian Recovery, we offer dual diagnosis treatment for alcohol use and the treatment of ASD symptoms. We provide stabilization, detoxification, and therapeutic interventions for those experiencing substance use and supplemental mental health concerns. We believe that those experiencing substance use deserve evidence-based and professional treatment to aid them in their recovery journey. Our highly educated staff of physicians, therapists, and clinicians can provide you with psychoeducation and steps to aid your recovery process. Contact us today to receive a complementary assessment and a free, no obligation health benefits check, and to begin your sobriety journey today.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27734228/
  3. https://guardianrecovery.com/drug-and-alcohol-detox-and-recovery/why-do-people-with-alcohol-use-disorder-drink/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860472/
  5. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1362361321992668
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35499489/
  7. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2774700?resultClick=1
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6472168/
  9. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html
  10. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23713737/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4173065/
  13. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=PBiFXF-nTawC&oi=fnd&pg=PR1&ots=z6WGUC9l6u&sig=fW12xQaRm9UjSV4V2_-SXgxlL2c#v=onepage&q&f=false
  14. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/facts.html#:~:text=Fetal%20Alcohol%20Syndrome%20(FAS)%3A,communication%2C%20vision%2C%20or%20hearing.
  15. https://www.medicalhomeportal.org/issue/distinguishing-fetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorders-from-autism-spectrum-disorder
  16. https://www.medicalhomeportal.org/issue/distinguishing-fetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorders-from-autism-spectrum-disorder
  17. https://www.medicalhomeportal.org/issue/distinguishing-fetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorders-from-autism-spectrum-disorder
  18. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/treatments/early-intervention

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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