Friends are doing a toast on a rooftop. The autistic friend here would not be having a drink because he is a recovering addict.

‘Fitting in’ and Other Issues with Being an Autistic Addict in Recovery

Many people face the complexities of recovery from addiction every day, but this issue becomes compounded by the autistic neurology and other neurodivergence.

Being autistic can present a unique challenge when in social situations. Trying to work out what is expected of us in these situations can seem like an impossible task at times. Trying to read social and emotional cues can feel like trying to communicate with another species for some of us, however if you are a recovering addict (like myself) and have chosen total abstinence from drugs and alcohol, the issue can feel even more complicated.

Alcohol and drugs are a staple of western society. Alcohol especially is used as a sort of social lubricant that allows for a more free-flowing conversation and relaxes our social anxieties. For myself, and others like me, alcohol is not an option.

Let me be clear, I would love to have a beer with my friends and relax, but I am painfully aware that once I start, I cannot stop. Drinking, for me, always continues until I black out, rapidly followed by shame and guilt over the behaviours that will have inevitably reared their head.

I find socialising difficult. I always have. This, perhaps, is part of the reason why drink and drugs appealed to me so much. A few pills or pints, and suddenly I was the life and soul of the party. No more worrying about my autistic behaviours or sensory overload.

Now I find myself in a difficult position. Socialising was draining enough when I had a chemical crutch, but now I must face the complexities of social interaction with nothing to “take the edge off.”

These days it is twice as awkward going out. Not only am I trying to avoid extensive social interaction and find a place that won’t be playing really loud music (many of us hate bars with really loud music, but for autistic people, the noise can be physically painful as well as emotionally-draining), but I am also trying to find places with decent non-alcoholic options to drink.

This issue is further compounded when I look around at my friends drinking and laughing, becoming consistently more intoxicated, and realise this is something I will never be able to enjoy. I could drink if I wanted to, but it wouldn’t be enjoyable. It would also put me at risk of starting back down a path towards oblivion.

Since being in recovery, I have had to learn to deal with the complexities of socialising without using alcohol or drugs.

I don’t want people to think I am complaining. I still very much enjoy going out with my friends (provided I have the energy to do so), and do in fact prefer my sober life. I am lucky that I have a very supportive group of friends who never push me to join in with things that make me uncomfortable. They understand my boundaries and respect them.

This is the key point really. You have to have boundaries to help keep everyone safe.

It can feel difficult to fit in as either an addict or an autistic person, but the two together present a unique challenge. It’s a challenge worth taking on, though.

I have learnt a lot about my own strength through quitting drink and drugs. It’s true that I often feel as though I don’t fit in; but at the same time, I am proud of myself for learning to deal with my social and communication difficulties without substances.

Sometimes I feel like a bit of an alien in social situations because of my circumstances, but if I’m honest, I’d rather feel like an alien than die from alcoholism or substance misuse.

Staying sober as an autistic adult has it’s difficulties. My aversion to change and love of ‘sameness’ made the transition from active addiction to sobriety particularly difficult, but it was the right move to make for my life. That same rigid approach to life also gave me a significant boost in finding sobriety and choosing abstinence, remaining sober is now as natural to me as stimming or breathing. I always remember that I am an addict, but I am confident in my recovery.

I am slowly relearning what it means to be autistic now that I do not have the veil of drink and drugs over my head.

Finally, to any of you who may be struggling with drink and drugs; you are not alone. Many of us have shared your experience. I promise you that life can get better, and you can find your way back to sobriety. You just need to reach out.

David Gray-Hammond
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19 Comments

  1. If you have real friends, you will fit right in. Time has come for the gang to make allowances. Besides one day they will all be sober and regretting the days of drinking and hedonism, eh? I have spent my life since leaving school at 16 in fear of my own capacity for addiction. I was certain if I just smoked cigarettes and drank in bars, I would never be able to stop. I have build a life around the sober buzz, lots of exercise and good obsessions, and it’s worked for me. But do have something that keeps it together in life. Or more than one. I go swimming every morning I can now. Pre empt lows by keeping up the exercise even when you don’t feel you need it. Good luck x

    1. Author

      My circle of friends are very supportive these days, I cut many of the negative influences out of my social circle.

      Truth be told I wrote this article some time ago without publishing, but chose to publish in case there was something in here that may help others like me.

  2. It wasn’t until I tried to stop drinking, and realized how surprisingly hard it was, that I started to better understand why I started in the first place. In high school I was awkward socially, said weird things, and masked a lot among other things I won’t go into here (I’ve never been diagnosed with autism, but wondering lately if I should have been). Then college came, and when I drank I was “fun”, and when I did say weird things or start cleaning other people’s house, it was just chalked up to being drunk and it was seen as funny. Now that I’ve stopped, I suddenly feel horribly uncomfortable in all social situations, and it feels like my friends may not know the real me. This comment is getting long, but just want to say how much I appreciate this post.

    1. Author

      It took me a long time to adjust to socialising without drugs and alcohol, but now that I have, I don’t look back. What was important for me was surrounding myself with a social group that supports me in my sobriety.

  3. David, thank you so very much for this. I am a neurotypical and my boyfriend was on the autistic spectrum. He couldn’t function without drinking or smoking pot. I was in the midst of trying to find some help for him, because I’ve read that 12 Step AA Meetings often won’t work well for autistic individuals. I was trying to find a physician who had experience with autism and addiction, however the only one I could find was two hours away and didn’t take our insurance. Last year my boyfriend was walking across the street after leaving work and was struck by a car. He died a few days later surrounded by me and his family. I am in so much pain about it, first of all because I adored him beyond words and I miss him so much. We found out through blood tests that he had a high amount of alcohol in his system. So after work and while walking to the bus stop he must have been drinking quite a bit. Police found small whiskey bottles in is backpack. I really hate the myth that autistic people do not like drugs or alcohol because they like to “play by the rules” whatever that means. Doctors are buying into this theory that isn’t true at all. I believe there may be many autistic (neurodiverse) individuals that need help and the medical community is not trained well enough to understand the challenges that autistic individuals have to overcome as addicts/alcoholics. I’m not sure if you have heard of the book: “Drinking, Drug Use and Addiction in the Autism Community” by Elizabeth Kunreuther and Ann Palmer, two psychiatrists. I had bought that book two months before my boyfriend’s death and it gave me hope. Anyway, thank you again for your article.

    1. Author

      I am so sorry for your loss. Addiction is somewhat of a silent issue for the autistic community. Many of us experience these issues, but very few are talking about it.

      I tried 12 step programs, and while they gave me some useful information about myself that got me started, ultimately I had to maintain my sobriety without the 12 steps.

      I hope you find some peace in the knowledge that even if no one else will speak out on this issue, I will, especially while people like your boyfriend are dying. I hope for a world where people don’t suffer and die because of addiction.

  4. Congrats on your sobriety! I hope you find nice places with good drink options to hang out.

    If I have friends to go out with someday, I think I would probably drink hot chocolate.

    1. Author

      Thank you 🙂 I am nearly 4 years sober now and learning everyday how to make sober life comfortable.

      I’m sure you will have friends to go out with someday, you seem very friendly 🙂

      1. Four years is a big milestone! I’m glad you’re learning more about living a healthy sober life. I hope it just gets easier and easier as you learn.

        Thank you! I might make work friends and go out with them after I graduate. For now, though, I am happy with my simple life of studying, Netflix, and drawing pictures.

        I consider myself very lucky because I can’t stand the taste of alcohol. As in, running-to-the-sink-and-putting-my-tongue-in can’t stand it. The statistics on alcoholism and autism are very sad. Have you heard of the Rat Park experiments about addiction? I think it is telling about society that so many autistics are struggling this way.

        1. Author

          I have heard about the rat park experiments. They are very interesting, but I think it’s important to recognise their limitations.

          I’m not convinced we can eliminate addiction any time soon, so it’s important that we open up a conversation about how to help those already experiencing it.

          1. Yeah. If only it were so easy as to build a human park that would make everyone happy!

            You’re right. Solving addiction is a huge issue; all we can really do is chip away at one contributing problem at a time. And in the meantime, there are a lot of people who are hurting and who need help now.

            I wonder if the rat park principle could also help with addiction recovery, to help people’s lives become less of a cage and more of a park. Because everyone deserves (at minimum) a decent life. And if someone’s life is awful like a cage, they deserve help.

          2. Author

            There is definitely something to be said for the positive impact of a supportive community. In my opinion you can have all the therapy in the world, but if you don’t have a support network you are at risk of relapse.

          3. Yes, a support network can make such a huge difference.

            I wonder if pets count as part of a support network, because I hope to someday add a dog to mine.

          4. Author

            Pets absolutely count. My dogs and cats have been vital to my wellbeing.

          5. I’m glad you have them. I’m really excited for hopefully being able to have a dog of my own! I want a cuddly one.

          6. Author

            Cuddly dogs are the best. We have a labrador and a rottweiler. Both of them are really affectionate and cuddly.

          7. That’s awesome! Do you have any advice on dog ownership?

          8. Author

            The biggest piece of advice I have is to look into how much food your dog will require, and what their exercise needs will be. You need to make sure you can meet those two things.

          9. That’s good advice! I will make sure to do that before I make any big decisions.

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