A study investigating the relationship between ADHD and autism symptoms and substance abuse has revealed that those with traits for autistic spectrum disorder who start to drink are at increased risk for developing alcoholism. Previous studies have generally found a lower risk for alcohol dependence among those with autistic traits because drinking is usually social, but this study shows that those who start to drink alone have much greater difficulty controlling the habit. The findings also indicate a greater risk for both groups for smoking and marijuana use, providing an important insight into these conditions and the likelihood of developing an addiction.
The Study: Investigating Symptoms Of ADHD, Autism And Substance Abuse
The researchers used a combination of interviews and surveys to evaluate each respondent’s ADHD symptoms, autistic traits and substance use or dependence in a group of 3,080 twins. These were based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-IV). To assess ADHD, for example, the researchers looked for inattention and a sense of always being “on the go,” among other symptoms. There is generally an overlap between the two conditions, according to the authors, which is assumed to be related to genetic similarities.
However, just because a person with ADHD has some autistic traits doesn’t mean they also have an autism spectrum disorder. It is important to note that these weren’t necessarily people with autism spectrum disorder or ADHD, just people who displayed similar traits or symptoms. The presence of these traits was considered along with rates of substance use, specifically focusing on alcohol, nicotine and marijuana use.
What They Found: Increased Risk For Substance Abuse
The findings indicate that those with symptoms and traits of ADHD and autism are at greater risk for substance abuse on the whole, and those with more markers for either condition use more alcohol, marijuana and nicotine. For regular smoking, for example, just under 37 percent of people with no ADHD symptoms smoked, but 51 percent of those who had at least three symptoms did. For autistic traits, rates were low (16 percent) for people with any traits, but for those who had six or more, this increased to 51 percent. For marijuana, 23 percent of people without autistic traits had used the drug more than ten times, but for those with six or more traits, the rate increased to 39 percent.
However, the headline findings relate to alcohol. Respondents with ADHD symptoms were more likely to drink socially and drink until they got drunk than those with no symptoms, but for people with traits of autism spectrum disorder, the opposite was true on both measures. This is in line with the cautiousness and issues with sociability common in those with autism spectrum disorder, but if they did drink (often in non-social settings), the researchers saw a notable increase in addiction risk. For people with no autistic traits, the rate of alcohol dependence was just under 20 percent, but for those with six or more traits, the rate increased to 35 percent.
Plans For Future Research: Do Certain Autism Traits Predict Drinking?
The finding that addiction risk increased with autism traits runs contrary to existing research, and the group plans to investigate this in future studies. The theory is that the lower rate of drinking seen in other research may be because some autistic traits protect against alcoholism, whereas others increase the risk. In order to determine if this is the case, the researchers intend to look at specific traits (e.g., social withdrawal) and try to estimate their individual impact on risk of alcohol use and dependence. It could also be that having some traits increases risk, whereas having more confers some additional protection.
Even though the study didn’t specifically look at people with autism spectrum disorder, there is obviously a close relationship between the traits of the condition and the condition itself. The findings—particularly those of future studies—will offer an insight into the addiction risk of people with autism spectrum disorder, but also for non-sufferers who share similar traits. For ADHD sufferers, their increased susceptibility to addiction is also particularly relevant given that medications like Adderall (used to treat the condition) are known to be addictive.
These findings add some much-needed detail to our understanding of addiction risk in those with ADHD symptoms and autism spectrum disorder traits. While further research will help to pinpoint the details of the relationship, this finding is a vital step forward in our understanding of what puts people at risk for addiction, which in turn may lead to better treatment and targeted prevention efforts for those in need.
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