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.