Sign that says Addiction

Issues with Addiction Advocacy in the Autistic Community3 min read

Addiction is a debil­i­tating and poten­tially life threat­ening psy­chi­atric con­di­tion. It comes in many forms, from nico­tine addic­tion, to heroin, then ranging through less talked-about addic­tions such as gam­bling.

Addiction destroys the lives of suf­ferers and causes immense suf­fering to those around them. While there has been a gen­er­ally upward trend in accep­tance of mental health con­di­tions (including addic­tion), there is still one demo­graphic over­looked by pro­fes­sionals and the public alike.

That demo­graphic is autistic addicts.

Professionals seem to ignore the exis­tence of autistic addicts, appar­ently adhering to the idea that autistic people do not suffer from addic­tion, that they are some how immune to it. There is a per­va­sive idea based off of stereo­types that autistic people love rules, and there­fore would never do some­thing so anar­chic as to become an addict.

Even when I myself was diag­nosed with a sub­stance misuse dis­order, my bla­tant autistic traits were over­looked, and I was treated like a neu­rotyp­ical suf­fering from addic­tion.

The public is full of people with fixed (and often extreme) ide­o­log­ical opin­ions on the matter, making addic­tion a very sen­si­tive topic to speak or write about. This is per­haps per­pet­u­ated by the idea that some have that they them­selves are immune to addic­tion. This ignores a very painful truth: addic­tion knows no bound­aries, and it can come for anyone, regard­less of neu­ro­log­ical status.

For this reason, it is impor­tant that we open up the dia­logue about autistic people expe­ri­encing addic­tion. We live in a world where autis­tics already have sig­nif­i­cantly lower life expectan­cies than their neu­rotyp­ical peers, with markedly higher sui­cide rates. These issues are only ampli­fied by addic­tion.

So why is it so dif­fi­cult to get this con­ver­sa­tion going?

As men­tioned before, people have strong ide­o­log­ical opin­ions, that are often pre-conceived without any first hand expe­ri­ence of what addic­tion is or does to a person. These opin­ions are often formed from media reports that paint addicts as a blight on society, some­thing to be erad­i­cated. These people of course never even stop to con­sider autistic addicts, as they are often too busy infan­tilizing us, seeing us as too child­like to expe­ri­ence addic­tion.

Others have had neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences at the hands of friends or loved ones. Addicts often lead chaotic lives that can harm the people around them. These neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences feed directly into the pre-conceived ideas men­tioned above. It can take years of work with pro­fes­sionals to work through the harm caused by addic­tion, and one of the most common reac­tions to that harm is anger.

A third point to this is that addic­tion can be a very dis­tressing topic to talk about. Discussions of addic­tion almost always include dis­cus­sion of exten­sive trauma and other com­plex psy­chi­atric con­di­tions. These topics can be very trig­gering, and many must avoid these topics for their own well­being.

Simply put, we need to find ways to over­come these bar­riers and start the con­ver­sa­tion on how we can best sup­port autistic addicts. Autistic addicts are a very real group of people who have expe­ri­enced not only a great deal of suf­fering, but exclu­sion from the sys­tems set up to sup­port them in their recovery.

We autis­tics deserve to be included in the con­ver­sa­tion on how best to help people expe­ri­encing addic­tion. If not for our­selves, then for the autis­tics who come after us.

Service user involve­ment is vital in this topic. We must listen to the voices of lived expe­ri­ence. By changing the way that autism and addic­tion are viewed, we can open up a useful dia­logue and create real change. We espe­cially need aca­d­e­mics and pro­fes­sionals to study the nature of addic­tion in autis­tics and to listen to autistic voices.

The world of addic­tion treat­ment is not made with autistic people in mind. It is time we show them that we are here.

David Gray-Hammond
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  1. I think we need more research on how to sup­port autistic people strug­gling with addic­tion, focusing on autistic voices. And then we need to make changes to sup­port people going through this.

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