New Study Shows Autistic Youth Vulnerable to Alcohol Dependence

By John Lavitt 06/13/14

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

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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 "In future research, we want to look at how individual traits - like repetitive behaviors or being withdrawn socially - may influence risk.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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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.