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New Study Shows Autistic Youth Vulnerable to Alcohol Dependence

Those with autism and ADHD symptoms were more likely to abuse alcohol.

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By John Lavitt

06/13/14

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A new research study at Washington University in St. Louis has revealed a frightening link between young people with autistic tendencies and alcohol problems.

Although drinking to intoxication tends to be a social activity that people with autistic traits would not engage directly in, they are very susceptible to abusing alcohol on their own. If a young person with autistic tendencies starts drinking on their own, the study revealed there is a definite predisposition to repeat the behavior over and over again. Such a predisposition to repetitive behaviors is what makes alcohol consumption, particularly to excess, so dangerous for autistic youth.

Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Institute of Health (NIH), the study involved 3,080 twins from Australia. In numerous interviews about the challenges of social interactions for the twins, it became apparent there also existed a predisposition to alcohol dependence and other potential addictive disorders.

Participants in the study were given surveys to determine any symptoms relating to attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder. The surprising findings revealed that those with more ADHD symptoms were more likely to abuse alcohol than others. Findings also revealed that those with autistic traits who drank were less likely to drink socially or even to the point of intoxication.

If the young people with autistic tendencies did drink, however, given a natural bent toward ongoing repetition typical of autism, they immediately were at an increased risk for long-term alcohol dependence and even alcoholism. The percentage of alcohol-dependent subjects among those with six or more autistic traits was 35 percent. What is surprising is that smaller, clinical studies have reported very low rates of drinking and substance use in people with autistic tendencies.

First author Duneesha De Alwis, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry, described the upcoming goals of the ongoing project. "In future research, we want to look at how individual traits - like repetitive behaviors or being withdrawn socially - may influence risk. It could be that some traits related to autism are protective, while others elevate the risk for alcohol and substance-abuse problems.”

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