Teens With Autism at Risk for Alcohol Abuse, Addiction, Says Study

Teenagers who are living with autistic characteristics and/or ADHD may be more likely to abuse alcohol reports a new study at Washington University in St. Louis.

For some parents, this may seem counterintuitive. Since most people on the autism spectrum struggle with social interactions and alcohol is primarily a social drug during the teen years, parents of children with autism may mistakenly believe that they can at least hope to sidestep this particular pitfall of childrearing if nothing else.

However, the study reports that teenagers on the spectrum may be more likely to drink on their own rather than in groups—and once they start, they may be more likely to repeat the behavior over and over as compared to typically developing peers. It’s the predisposition to develop repetitive behaviors that is so threatening to those with autism when it comes to alcohol use or abuse.

Autistic Traits

The study found that, of the participants who had six more traits of autism, about 35 percent were dependent upon alcohol, according to The Fix. It’s important to note that exhibiting “autistic traits” does not necessarily mean that the participant was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. In fact, a number of kids with ADHD exhibit autistic traits, putting them at risk as well, according to the study.

Duneesha De Alwis, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and first author on the study. She said, “There seems to be a strong genetic overlap between ADHD and autism. And it’s very common for people with ADHD to have autistic traits. These individuals may not have an autism spectrum disorder, but they typically score high on measurements of autistic traits.”

The Spectrum of Differences Could Offer Protection

No two children with autism are the same, and though there are characteristic traits of the disorder, it is called the autism “spectrum” because different kids will manifest those traits in varying degrees, under different circumstances, or in different combinations with other traits. Though most kids tend toward repeating behaviors that they find comfortable, there may be some traits that offer children on the spectrum protection from the risks of alcohol abuse.

Said De Alwis, “In future research, we want to look at how individual traits—like repetitive behaviors or being withdrawn socially—may influence risk. It could be that some traits related to autism are protective, while others elevate the risk for alcohol and substance-abuse problems.”

Early Identification, Immediate Action

Parents of teens with ADHD or autism—like parents of any child—can have a significant impact on the situation by paying attention to changes in behavior, identifying alcohol use or abuse early, and taking immediate action. Teen-centered treatment can help kids to change behaviors before they become lifelong problems. Contact us today at Muir Wood to find out how we can help your son overcome a substance abuse problem here at our rehab program for boys in Northern California.