People with autistic tendencies vulnerable to alcohol problems


May 2, 2014 |

Young adults with autistic tendencies don’t often engage in social or binge drinking, but if they drink, they are slightly more likely than their peers to develop alcohol problems, according to new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The findings were published recently in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

The researchers did not study people with autism. Rather, they wanted to know whether traits linked to autism, such as social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors, put people at risk for alcohol and other substance-use problems.

“Drinking to intoxication is a social activity that is more likely to occur in a group,” said first author Duneesha De Alwis, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry. “People with autistic traits can be socially withdrawn, so drinking with peers is less likely. But if they do start drinking, even alone, they tend to repeat that behavior, which puts them at increased risk for alcohol dependence.”

De Alwis and senior investigator Arpana Agrawal, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry, studied 3,080 Australian twins and assessed their responses in interviews and questionnaires to identify symptoms related to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These symptoms include inattention, difficulty concentrating or always being “on the go.” They also assessed traits frequently seen in autism spectrum disorders.

“There seems to be a strong genetic overlap between ADHD and autism,” De Alwis said. “And it’s very common for people with ADHD to have autistic traits. These individuals may not have an autism spectrum disorder, but they typically score high on measurements of autistic traits.”

In addition to alcohol problems, the researchers analyzed the twins’ nicotine and marijuana use, finding that people with more ADHD symptoms or autistic traits also were more likely to smoke cigarettes. Those with more ADHD symptoms or autistic tendencies also were more likely to use and abuse marijuana, and the risk increased with the number of symptoms a person had.

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For example, just under 37 percent of those with no ADHD symptoms smoked regularly, but among those with three or more symptoms, 51 percent reported regular smoking. Only 16 percent of those with autistic traits were regular smokers, but like those with more ADHD symptoms, the smoking rate among those with six or more autistic traits was 51 percent.

Regarding alcohol dependence, just under 20 percent of those with no autistic traits met the criteria for alcoholism. The percentage of alcohol-dependent people among those with six or more traits was 35 percent. For marijuana, about 23 percent of those with no autistic traits reported smoking pot more than 10 times in their lives, but 39 percent of people with six or more traits had used marijuana that often.

“That was a surprise,” said De Alwis. “We expected they would be less likely to use marijuana because people at greatest risk for autism spectrum disorders often are reluctant to take risks and typically take steps to avoid harm.”

Those with more ADHD traits were more likely to engage in social drinking and to drink until they were intoxicated. Those with autistic traits didn’t do either, but if they drank at all, they still had an elevated risk for alcohol dependence.

“Binge drinking, for example, might happen in a very developmentally limited fashion,” she said. “People are most likely to binge drink during college. Then they mature and go on with life. Someone who is more socially withdrawn may not engage in that sort of drinking, but he or she may have an escalating pattern of drinking that leads to alcoholism.”
Smaller, clinical studies of individuals with autism have reported very low rates of drinking and substance use in people with autism spectrum disorders, especially when compared with people who have other psychiatric disorders. So why did this study find elevated risk in people with autistic tendencies?

“It could be that people with just a few autistic traits have an increased risk of substance-abuse problems, while those with more traits are somehow protected,” Agrawal explained. “For this study, we clumped all of these symptoms together. 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.”


24 Responses to People with autistic tendencies vulnerable to alcohol problems

  1. 14107822 May 5, 2014 at 6:47 am #

    A subsequent study (2011) claimed that “Autism and Alcoholism are Genetically linked”. It is argued that for the first time a gene that carries an increased risk of autism has also been associated with alcoholism by scientists. The study which gathered data from 26, 316 participants from 12 European populations- tracked how much alcohol each person consumes daily. The subjects’ DNA was then examined for the AUTS2 gene. The gene was found to be present in a higher-than-average of alcoholic mice, as well as people. Scientists estimate that around 40% of alcoholics carry a genetic predisposition of their addiction. The study is not the first to recognise a high incidence of alcoholism in families with autism, but the genetic evidence it uncovered is new. It’s hoped that the latest discoveries will aid understanding of the hereditary mechanism that influence both alcoholism and autism.
    Referring to this article and the “vulnerability” of people with autistic tendencies, the might rather be “genetically predisposed”?

  2. George May 5, 2014 at 4:52 am #

    Risk factors for ADD include genetic links or family members with the disorder. These may include immediate family members such as parents and siblings or extended family members such as cousins, grandparents and other distant relatives. Other risk factors include the chronic use of mind altering medications, especially while pregnant such as analgesics, antidepressants, and medications for bipolar disorder, as well as others.
    More about ADHD and ADD diagnosis and symptoms on http://www.medicalook.com/Adhd/Attention_deficit_disorder.html

  3. 14107822 May 5, 2014 at 4:46 am #

    A subsequent study (2011) claimed that “Autism and Alcoholism are Genetically linked. It is argued that for the first time, a gene that carries an increased risk of autism has also been associated with alcoholism by scientists. The study which gathered data from 26,316 participants from 12 European populations—tracked how much alcohol each person consumed daily. The subjects’ DNA was then examined for the AUTS2 gene. The gene was found to be present in a higher-than-average number of alcoholic mice, as well as people. Scientists estimate that around 40% of alcoholics carry a genetic predisposition to their addiction. The study isn’t the first to recognize a high incidence of alcoholism in families with autism, but the genetic evidence it uncovered is new. It’s hoped that the latest discoveries will aid understanding of the hereditary mechanisms that influence both alcoholism and autism.
    Referring to this article and the “vulnerability” of people with autistic tendencies, the term might rather be “genetically predisposed” ?

  4. Alice Pacheco 14055059 May 5, 2014 at 2:14 am #

    I have a few doubts concerning this hypothesis due to my limited back ground knowledge on Autism however I accepted the facts from the results obtained by the research done. I find this article to be very interesting and believe further research should be done regarding this hypothesis and hopefully some prevention regarding alcohol abuse by the above subject may e controlled once more people understand the situation.

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