Do people with autism frequently struggle with substance abuse? Learn more here.

Are people with autism at greater-than-average risk of substance abuse? As we learn more about autism spectrum disorder and increase our awareness of the challenges of substance abuse with varying mental illnesses, it’s worthwhile to explore the risks of these two conditions co-occurring. So, how common are autism and substance abuse?

Studies have shown that people with autism are no more likely to have substance abuse issues than anyone else. In many cases, these individuals may be less inclined to use substances as a result of social avoidance tendencies. An important factor here is exposure. People with autism who try substances may have a higher likelihood of becoming addicted because of the symptoms of social avoidance. When the stress of dealing with others in a social setting rises to the level that it commonly does with autism, it makes sense that adding substances could be risky. When substances are utilized to manage difficult situations, the likelihood of addiction increases.

Effects of Drug Use on Autism Symptoms

The impact of drug use and autism can be significant. The factors that autism and substance use disorders share are the tendency to focus intently on specific activities or topics and use repetition behaviors to cope with difficult emotions. Because of these shared traits, these conditions tend to reinforce each other when they co-occur.

Autism and Alcohol

According to an Australian study, people with fewer autistic traits (formerly known as Asperger’s disorder) are at a higher risk for alcohol abuse because the autistic traits that are present involve social challenges. Individuals with more autistic traits tend to be risk-avoidant, which results in less socialization and drinking overall. So, while it is possible for someone with autism to have challenges with alcohol addiction, the fewer traits an individual has within the autism spectrum, the greater the odds of alcohol use becoming a problem.

Autism and Marijuana

Marijuana poses the same risks for substance abuse in people with autism as it does for members of the general population. As with alcohol or other drugs, the risk may increase if someone with autism uses marijuana as a means of coping with stress. Recent studies have shown that CBD oil (obtained from the cannabis plant) helps reduce some symptoms of autism in children. Additional studies must be conducted to identify whether adult use of marijuana with autism can also relieve symptoms.

Autism and Nicotine

People with high functioning autism can become addicted to tobacco in the same ways that the general population can. Social settings that may bring discomfort to someone with autism may influence the use of tobacco products. The immediate gratification that smoking offers can be tempting as a tool to relieve tension in awkward social situations.

Statistics on Autism and Drug Use

Statistics on drug use and autism rates vary. Some studies indicate a low correlation between drug use and autism diagnosis, while others suggest the opposite. However, a study conducted in Sweden showed a greater prevalence of drug use in autistic populations. Like any population, many variables impact whether someone with autism will try substances and then use them regularly. Research seems to suggest that among individuals with autism, the risk of drug use tends to increase as intellectual ability increases.  

Does Autism Lead To Drug Addiction?

Simply stated: no. Autism does not lead to drug addiction, and drug addiction does not cause autism. However, individuals on the spectrum with less autistic traits and greater intellectual abilities tend to have a higher risk of drug addiction.

Treating Autism With Co-Occurring Substance Abuse

The scientific community continues to learn more about the way autism and substance abuse interact. However, to better understand instances of co-occurring autism and substance use disorder, additional studies need to be conducted.

If you or a loved one has autism and is using substances regularly, help is available. To learn more about treatment options for autism, contact The Recovery Village at  877.852.4215. The compassionate and knowledgeable staff will be available to help determine what next steps to take toward wellness.

a woman is standing with her arms crossed.
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
a woman wearing glasses and a blue shirt.
Medically Reviewed By – Paula Holmes, LCSW
Paula Holmes is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and freelance writer who lives and works in midcoast Maine. She received her master's degree in Social Work in 2008 from the University of Maine. Read more

Kunreuther, Elizabeth. “Drinking, Drug Use and Addiction in the Autism Community.” 2018 Autism Imagine Conference. Accessed March 5, 2019.

Dryden, Jim. “People with autistic tendencies vulnerab[…] to alcohol problems.” The Source. May 1, 2014. Accessed March 5, 2019.

Arnevic, Espin A; Helvershou, Sissel B. “Autism Spectrum Disorder and Substance U[…]�A Systematic Review.” August 17, 2016. Accessed March 5, 2019.

Pedersen, Tracy. “Study: Medical Cannabis Oil Helps Relieve Autism Symptoms in Kids.” February 1, 2019. Accessed March 6, 2019.

Butwicka, A; Långström, et al. “Increased Risk for Substance Use-Related[…]n-Based Cohort Study.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. October 12, 2016. Accessed March 7, 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.