Autism and addiction

From Tom Hanks’ unforgettable performance as Forrest Gump to Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Arnie in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” cinema has given us some truly memorable characters who exhibit traits of autism. These portrayals not only entertain but also help raise awareness and understanding of the autism spectrum. However, there is a complex reality often overlooked: the co-occurrence of autism and addiction. Life can be incredibly difficult when these two conditions are experienced together, with professional rehab treatment essential for positive recovery outlooks.

Autism and addiction

What is autism?

Autism is a complex neurological and developmental disorder that affects how a person perceives the world, communicates and interacts with others. The exact causes of autism are still subject to further study (and a great deal of debate and misinformation). Still, the condition usually appears in early childhood and continues throughout a person’s life.

Every individual with autism is unique, and the presentation of symptoms can vary widely. However, some common autism symptoms include:

  • Difficulty making eye contact or maintaining conversations
  • Struggling to understand social cues or nonverbal communication
  • Limited or repetitive patterns of speech and language
  • Intense focus on specific interests or hobbies
  • Repetitive behaviours such as hand-flapping, rocking or spinning
  • Sensitivity to certain sounds, textures, tastes or smells
  • Resistance to changes in routine or environment

What is dual diagnosis autism and addiction?

Dual diagnosis refers to the presence of two co-occurring conditions, in this case, autism and addiction. Addiction is a complex brain disorder characterised by compulsive substance use or engaging in harmful behaviours despite negative consequences. When someone with autism also struggles with addiction, it can create a unique and challenging situation. This combination of conditions is not uncommon, particularly with ASD and behavioural addictions, but it is generally agreed that more research is needed to understand the situation better.

Co-occurring autism and addiction can present many complexities as both conditions can exacerbate each other’s symptoms and make treatment more challenging. However, with our support and interventions, individuals with dual diagnosis autism and addiction can overcome their struggles and lead fulfilling lives.

Why do autism and addiction co-occur?

Co-occurring autism and addiction can develop for several reasons, including:

Social isolation and loneliness…

People with autism often struggle with social connections, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. These feelings may drive them to use substances or engage in addictive behaviours as a form of coping or self-medication.

Difficulty coping with emotions…

Autism can make it difficult for people to understand and process emotions, leading them to turn to substances or addictive behaviours to numb or manage overwhelming feelings.

Autism and addiction - man struggling with addiction

Sensory issues…

Some individuals with autism may be drawn to the sensory effects of certain substances, as they can provide relief from sensory sensitivities or overstimulation.

Co-occurring mental health disorders…

Many people with autism also experience mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or ADHD. These disorders can increase the risk of developing an addiction.

How is addiction treated when autism is present?

Treating addiction in individuals with autism can be challenging due to the complex nature of co-existing mental health and addiction disorders. However, Recovery Lighthouse has extensive experience in successfully treating addiction and can provide extra support for people suffering from dual diagnosis conditions, including autism.

Before beginning treatment at Recovery Lighthouse, it’s essential to first speak to your GP about getting your autism symptoms under control. This may involve medication, therapy or other interventions to help manage the challenges associated with autism. Once your autism symptoms are more manageable, you can begin the rehabilitation process.

When you leave Recovery Lighthouse, we will continue to help you through our aftercare programme. This involves weekly group therapy sessions for a year to provide ongoing support and help you maintain your recovery. Engaging in aftercare is essential in preventing relapse and promoting long-term recovery for everyone with ASD and addiction.

Which therapies are most effective for autism and addiction?

Some of the most effective Recovery Lighthouse therapies for addiction that can also benefit people with autism include:

  • Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT): DBT is a widely-used therapy that helps you identify and understand your unhealthy thought patterns and behaviours. For someone with ASD, DBT can be tailored to address social and communication difficulties while also tackling addiction-related issues. For example, a therapist might work with you to challenge negative thoughts around social situations, build coping strategies for sensory triggers and develop healthier habits to replace substance use.
  • Group therapy: Participating in group therapy can provide a supportive environment for sharing experiences, learning from others and practising social skills. For autism sufferers, group therapy sessions can be adapted to focus on social communication and understanding, helping you to connect with others and develop essential social strategies while also addressing your addiction recovery needs.
  • Art therapy: Art therapy uses creative expression to help people process emotions, explore personal experiences and develop coping skills. If you have coexisting autism and addiction, art therapy can provide an alternative means of communication, allowing you to express thoughts and feelings that may be challenging for you to talk about. For instance, creating artwork may help you process emotions related to addiction or explore sensory experiences tied to ASD.
  • Sound therapy: Sound therapy uses music or calming noises to help you relax, feel less stressed and express your emotions. This method can be really helpful for people with ASD and addiction because it helps you learn ways to deal with the stress and anxiety that are common symptoms of both conditions.
  • Mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness helps you pay attention to the present moment, become more aware of yourself and learn better ways to handle stress and strong emotions. If you have ASD and addiction, mindfulness meditation can help you notice things that bother your senses, control your feelings and deal with substance or behavioural cravings.

Autism and addiction - sound therapy

These are just some of the therapies that make up our comprehensive rehab treatment programmes with our expert therapists, who are highly experienced in tailoring therapy for people with different dual diagnosis needs.

Unique rehab challenges for those with autism and addiction

As you embark on your rehab journey, it’s essential to recognise the unique challenges you might face and develop strategies to overcome them.

Here are some obstacles you could encounter and suggestions for addressing them:

Sensory overload…

Rehab environments can be noisy, bright and overwhelming for people with autism. Communicate your sensory needs to your treatment team so they can help adjust the environment to better suit your comfort and support your recovery process.

Social anxiety…

Interacting with others during group therapy and daily activities might be particularly challenging if you have autism. Request additional support from your treatment team, such as practising social skills in smaller groups or one-on-one settings. You can gradually increase your involvement in larger group settings as you become more comfortable.

Communication difficulties…

If you have autism, articulating your thoughts and feelings can be difficult, potentially hindering your progress in therapy. That is why our experienced therapists use alternative communication methods like art therapy to help you express yourself more effectively.

Rigid routines…

Following familiar routines often provides a sense of security for individuals with autism. As you transition into rehab, discuss your daily rituals with your treatment team so they can help you maintain a sense of stability. Break down tasks into smaller steps and celebrate your progress as you navigate the changes and challenges of rehab.

The most important thing is to communicate regularly and openly with your treatment team so they can make your stay in rehab as comfortable and productive as possible.

How to get help

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Recovery Lighthouse is here to provide support, guidance and effective treatment for everyone who is facing the challenges of living with dual diagnosis. Contact us today to learn more about our dual diagnosis autism and addiction treatment programmes and how we can help you on the path to recovery.

Frequently asked questions

Is rehab a cure for autism?
Rehab is the treatment for addiction, not a cure for autism which is a lifelong mental and developmental disorder. However, rehab can play a crucial role in helping people with autism manage their symptoms and lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. In our rehab setting, individuals with autism can receive tailored treatment approaches that address their unique needs, focusing on improving communication, social skills, emotional regulation and coping strategies.
Can everyone who has autism go to rehab?
While rehab can be beneficial for many individuals with autism, it may not be suitable for everyone. People on the most severe end of the autism spectrum may struggle to benefit from traditional rehab settings due to their significant communication and social impairments, intellectual disabilities or challenging behaviours. It’s crucial to consult with our healthcare professionals and specialists to determine the most appropriate course of action for individuals with severe autism and co-occurring conditions.