Killing them softly: Addiction is the silent killer of the autistic and neurodivergent community

Young woman has her face buried behind her arms, with her arms and hair completely hiding her face. This image is meant to convey an autistic person struggling with addiction. Autism.

There is a silent scourge. It is insidious, taking those we love from us and killing the very people that we as advocates and activists try to protect. The killer’s name? Addiction.

As I type this, scores of autistic and neurodivergent individuals are battling with this condition. Addiction knows no boundaries: social class, ethnic background, personal moral compass, it can come for any of us.

According to a study by Butwicka et al. (2016), substance-use related problems have been observed in 19-30% of diagnosed autistic individuals in clinical settings. They note in their findings that there is an increase in the risk of substance-use disorder in autistic individuals (when compared to the non-autistic population); that risk was significantly increased risk when co-occuring ADHD was a factor.

Despite this increased risk, research on the topic remains a minor concern in the field of autism. To make matters more concerning, the neurodivergent community rarely talks about this topic. American Addiction Centers claim that the number of autistic people in addiction treatment is 7x the number in the general population. I was unable to verify that statistic, but honestly it would not surprise me. If that statistic is true, the silence of advocates and activists is all the more worrying.

One of the compounding factors in this matter is the lack of appropriate support and treatment for autistic addicts. Not only are treatment services commissioned without autistic and other neurodivergent voices (for the most part), but many autistics report finding peer support such as the 12-step fellowships unsuitable for their needs. I was one of those autistics.

Of course, all of this only matters if the neurodivergent community can even come forward about their addictions. We live in a world where both neurodivergent behaviours and addiction are seen as a moral failing. This makes opening up next-to-impossible without significant risk of negative repercussions.

This culture of silence is literally killing us. Practitioners who specialise in both neurodiversity and substance-use disorders are few and far between. Even the members of the neurodivergent community, who speak so fiercely on all manner of topics referring to our rights, remain silent, unaware of how to help addicts in their own community as a result.

We must start talking about this topic. Too many of us have fallen victim to addiction already. Those of us who are recovering from addiction can really help by talking about our own experiences.

Of course, there are a lot of legitimate reasons to keep quiet about addiction, especially considering the negative impact it can have on our lives to open up about it. But for those of us who can, we really need to start talking.

I dream of a world where not one more autistic or otherwise neurodivergent person has to die because of addiction. Being realistic, that dream may never come true, so in lieu of that, I will keep bringing up this topic until meaningful change happens. I will sit in as many meetings, advisory panels, and commissioning groups as I have to. We can improve this situation, but only if we learn to take it as seriously as the situation warrants.

If you are struggling with addiction, please reach out. You are not alone, you are not a failure. This is not your fault, and there is a way to find recovery. The world would be a darker place without you, and I personally would love for you to stick around and help me press for healthier self-care and better services for autistics experiencing addiction.

Please stay tuned as I plan to try and put together some helpful advice about how and where to take first steps in finding help.

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8 Responses

  1. Thanks for raising this topic, David. I suspect my 28 year old son has ADHD and AS, though he doesn’t have diagnoses. He also fits the addictive personality type and has struggled with cannabis addiction since his teens. I believe he first started using it to help him relax.

    1. Self-medication is a common theme amongst autistics. There is help out there, but a lot of it isn’t designed for neurodivergent people. I hope your son finds some relief from cannabis addiction.

  2. An article with advice for autistic & neurodivergent people struggling with addiction would be awesome.

    I’d like to be able to put together a wikiHow article about addiction for autistic people, but I don’t think I can do that yet due to how hard it is to find information to cite. (And I rely very heavily on citations when writing about something I haven’t personally experienced.)

    These conversations need to happen. People struggling with addiction need support.

      1. I look forward to reading it when it’s ready. We need more resources for autistics & neurodivergent people struggling with addiction. 🙂

        (No rush/pressure, though! Your needs come first.)

  3. Thank you for this. I am an autistic woman who has been sober for 7 years. My 12 step group was my first “family” before I discovered that I am also autistic. It was getting sober and learning to love who I am that helped me see and love the other parts of myself that had stayed hidden for so long. I don’t wear my recovery on my sleeve, but I am always willing to share about it when it is relevant. I’ve been slowly coming out as autistic to the people in my recovery community, and I have gotten nothing except love and support.

    1. Congratulations on 7 years of sobriety. I myself will be 4 years sober in April.

      I find being autistic and an addict to be an odd mix, but I am learning more everyday how to make my recovery work well for me.

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