Autism and Substance Abuse

Autism is a disorder that we are still trying to find out more about, with no real cure in sight. Parents are still learning how to manage this disorder, and should be aware that someone with autism will encounter greater challenges related to drugs and alcohol.

Occurrence of Autism

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 3.4 out of every 1,000 children ages 3 to 10 have autism. (1) 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 person 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.


Kids with high-functioning autism spend their entire childhood trying to fit in. Other kids 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. According to , “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.” (2) 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.

Unsure where to start? Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. This evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are designed to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result. Please be aware that this evaluation is not a substitute for advice from a medical doctor.