Because substance use in general is less common in this population, treatment needs tend to be overlooked. However, people with autism or Asperger’s still experience substance abuse and addiction. For this reason, organizations are beginning to improve treatment offerings for these underserved individuals. Understanding the specific needs of people who have autistic tendencies and how they experience substance abuse can help in developing programs and options for treatment that are more likely to result in positive outcomes for this sensitive segment of the population.
Addiction on the Autism SpectrumIn general, research shows that people on the autism spectrum are less likely to engage in the drinking and drug use behaviors that can lead to abuse and addiction. However, as discussed by Psychology Today, individuals with symptoms on the autistic spectrum who do use drugs or alcohol are at higher risk of developing problems with substance abuse. This includes members of the population who have autistic tendencies but have not received an autism diagnosis, as well as those with Asperger’s.
In fact, recent research from the Journal of Alcoholism & Drug Dependence demonstrated that there may be a higher percentage of people with autism spectrum disorder among those in treatment for substance abuse than there is among the general population. In the study, nearly 7 percent of people in addiction treatment were diagnosed with autism, as compared with 1 percent of the general population.
Because of this, there is a greater need of substance abuse treatment programs for people on the autism spectrum. However, the availability of these types of programs has lagged behind because of the lack of perceived need for such programs. Still, there are positive options available for people who are diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s, which potentially can also help those who have autistic tendencies but are not diagnosed on the spectrum.
Treatment options available for those who are struggling with co-occurring autism or Asperger’s are similar to those available for the general public. In particular, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – a centerpiece of addiction treatment – has shown benefit for those on the autism spectrum as well.
A study from Behavior Therapy showed that 79 percent people with autism who were given CBT showed clinical improvement in their symptoms, compared with less than 29 percent in a control group who showed improvement.
This seems to be connected with an improved ability to manage anxiety, a symptom that has a strong influence both on those with autism and on those with substance use disorders.
Reputable, research-based substance abuse rehab programs generally include CBT as part of their treatment plans, so this should be available to those on the autism spectrum as well. However, the issue isn’t so much with the availability of the program, but of its ability to reach this particular population.
Community Concerns When Seeking Treatment
People with autism spectrum disorder tend to have trouble relating to other people, which creates a barrier between them and typical treatment methods. Rehab centers tend to focus on group interaction, peer support, and shared experiences that clients can apply to their own lives. For people with autism or autistic tendencies, this can be a challenge.
As described by the Interactive Autism Network, autism can make it difficult to read another person’s emotions, connect with that person on a deeper level, and apply that person’s experiences to similar but diverse experiences in the life of the person with autism. Because of this, it can be difficult for a person with autism to perform tasks and take in lessons that are easier for a person without autistic symptoms.
This may make the person with autism shy away from a traditional treatment program. Becoming disengaged and discouraged, or dealing with a hesitation to interact, can make it more likely that a person with autism or Asperger’s will drop out of the program and return to substance abuse.
Specific Programs Needed for People on the Autism Spectrum
Developing programs to support the needs of people on the autism spectrum requires understanding how to keep these individuals motivated and engaged in the therapies and ideas that support abstinence behaviors and prevent relapse into substance use. The Indiana Resource Center for Autism gives some basic methods for achieving this engagement:
- Attune to the individual, getting to know the person and working with the person’s strengths and weaknesses
- Provide an environment that supports individual performance rather than group reliance
- Model activities and provide varied media
- Keep a positive spin on activities and learning
In accordance with these ideas, in order to overcome the concerns and challenges of those with autism or Asperger’s, a reputable treatment program can incorporate the following elements to maintain interest, involvement, and motivation:
- Provide staff with training in and understanding about working with this sensitive population.
- In group activities, provide the individual with behaviors to model or a role to perform, rather than depending on that person’s ability to relate to others.
- Provide variety in instruction methods, incorporating visual learning and activity rather than verbal instruction alone.
- Alternate tasks and experiences in which the person is more interested with those that are less appealing throughout each day to maintain involvement.
- Pace instruction and exercises to match the person’s ability to take in information to avoid the individual skimming over or not incorporating key concepts.
Treatment programs that provide vocational rehabilitation are more likely to be able to support these needs as well as offer integrated treatment that help the person manage not only the substance use disorder, but also the symptoms of autism. With CBT and other therapies provided through vocational rehabilitation, it is possible to achieve more positive outcomes for those with mental challenges like autism and Asperger’s.
When seeking a treatment center for a person with an autism spectrum disorder, it is important to discuss the individual’s needs with the intake specialist. Enrolling in a treatment program that does not have the tools to meet the individual’s needs may result in an unsuccessful outcome and a return to substance abuse.
Finding a program that meets this need includes seeking a research-based, certified program that has experience dealing with those on the autism spectrum. Working with organizations such as the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation can help people access resources and treatment modalities that are more likely to result in positive treatment outcomes and a future in recovery from substance abuse for those on the autism spectrum.