Depending on the severity of autism symptoms, a person with ASD may be at a higher risk of alcohol addiction. 

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder or ASD, is a developmental disorder that affects 1 in 59 children. People with ASD can have a variety of symptoms. These symptoms may vary widely in severity. Sometimes these symptoms may lead the person with ASD to rely on a substance like alcohol to relieve anxiety and sensory problems related to ASD. Depending on the severity of someone’s ASD, the risk of substance and alcohol abuse can be much higher than in other people.

Article at a Glance:

  • ASD is a common disorder with a wide variety of symptoms
  • People with ASD are more likely to have substance and alcohol use disorders, especially when their symptoms are mild
  • A person with ASD may drink to mask their anxiety or sensory problems
  • While FAS and ASD have some symptoms in common, they are otherwise unrelated
  • Therapy is a core treatment for both ASD and alcohol addiction

Prevalence of Alcohol Abuse and Autism

One study showed that the risk of substance abuse in people with ASD is double that of people without ASD. Another study found that 35% percent of individuals with six or more autistic traits were alcohol-dependent, compared to 20% of individuals with no autistic traits. However, the risk may depend on how severe someone’s ASD is. Doctors are not sure which traits in ASD may make someone more likely to struggle with substance use, and which traits may make them less likely to use substances like alcohol. Therefore, more research is needed on the topic.

Is Alcohol Abuse A Symptom of Autism?

Autism describes a spectrum of symptoms that can vary widely from person to person. However, most ASD symptoms are related to abnormal:

  • Social skills
  • Communication skills
  • Emotional skills

These problems can lead someone with ASD to exhibit a variety of problems and abnormal behaviors. Some people with ASD might have mild symptoms, while others might have major ones. Drinking too much in and of itself is not related to ASD. However, if someone has anxiety or sensory problems because of their ASD symptoms, they may use drinking as a coping mechanism to deal with these symptoms.

Does Alcohol Affect or Cause Autism?

Alcohol use during pregnancy is related to many problems, but ASD is not one of them. Doctors have conducted multiple studies on the topic and have come to the conclusion that there is no relationship between drinking in pregnancy and ASD.

However, drinking can affect ASD symptoms. For example, poor social skills are a common symptom of ASD. Therefore, if someone with ASD has social anxiety and problems talking to others, drinking can make them feel more relaxed. Therefore, drinking may temporarily mask their ASD symptoms. Some people with ASD may rely on drinking to mask their anxiety for years. In these people, drinking itself may eventually turn into a problem. Likewise, many people with ASD have sensory problems which can be reduced by alcohol, which depresses the central nervous system.

However, ASD symptoms may not fully disappear with drinking. Signs that someone who drinks heavily may have ASD include:

  • Pattern of eye contact that does not seem normal
  • Having unusual special interests
  • Unusual language patterns
  • Unusual conversation style

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Autism

Fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS, and autism are unrelated disorders that share some symptoms. Children born to mothers who drank while pregnant are at risk for FAS. However, studies have shown that these children are not at higher risk for ASD. Symptoms that FAS and ASD have in common in some children include:

  • Sensory issues
  • Developmental delays
  • Problems with thinking and decision making
  • Social problems

Related Topic: Fetal alcohol syndrome treatment

However, there is a difference between autism and fetal alcohol syndrome. For example, FAS and ASD often lead to different types of social problems:

  • Someone with ASD is more likely to seem distant and detached in social situations
  • Someone with FAS is more likely to appear overly friendly and not have common social boundaries

In addition, someone with ASD is more likely to have a higher nonverbal IQ than verbal IQ. However, someone with FAS is likely to be the opposite, having a higher verbal IQ than a nonverbal IQ. Although it is not impossible for someone to have both FAS and ASD at the same time, it is rare.

Autism and Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Therapy is a core treatment for ASD, with cognitive behavioral therapy and pragmatic speech therapy being helpful in some people with the disorder. Depending on the ASD symptoms, sometimes medications may be used. For example, if someone with ASD has symptoms that cause them anxiety or depression, then an antidepressant may be used. Similarly, therapy is a core treatment for alcohol abuse. Sometimes medications may be used to help the person avoid alcohol in the future.

If you struggle with alcohol use, whether or not you have ASD, you are not alone. Our professionals at The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab are here to help you. Contact us today to learn more.

Megan Hull
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
Jessica Pyhtila
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

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Eliasen M, Tolstrup JS, Nybo Andersen AM, et al. “Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Autistic S[…]en and Their Mothers.” International Journal of Epidemiology, August 2010. Accessed May 19, 2019.

Gallagher C, McCarthy FP, Ryan RM, Khashan AS. “Maternal Alcohol Consumption During Preg[…]lennium Cohort Study.”  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, June 2018. Accessed May 19, 2019.

Dryden J. “People with Autistic Tendencies Vulnerab[…] to Alcohol Problems.” The Source, May 1, 2014. Accessed May 19, 2019.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.” April 5, 2019. Accessed May 19, 2019.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?” May 3, 2018. Accessed May 19, 2019.

National Autistic Society. “Autism and Alcohol.” July 11, 2016. Accessed May 19, 2019.

The University of Utah. “Distinguishing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Di[…]sm Spectrum Disorder.” March 2017. Accessed May 19, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.