People with autistic tendencies vulnerable to alcohol problems


May 2, 2014
Brain & Behavior

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 “People with autistic traits can be socially withdrawn, so drinking with peers is less likely.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.

 

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.

  5. 14077516 May 4, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

    Wow, this is really interesting. I also have a family member with autistic traits. He is still young, but I do believe with the right upbringing and support this can be avoided. I think those who do tend to abuse alcohol or other drugs, must have a reason. For instance, I think most people with autism are sometimes very lonely- even though it is believed that they prefer to be alone. I believe it’s because they are treated like “outsiders”- because they are different- and do not have the skills to cope or change and therefore try to avoid human interaction. It’s only logical that they would then never learn social skills and continue to be “outsiders”. Would this not be a reason for someone to start looking for comfort in other things like alcohol or drugs??

  6. Nokuhanya Dube (14130867) University Pretoria May 4, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    This is such an insightful and interesting article and I definitely was informed about a lot of things I didn’t know about but I find certain information very vague and not clearly stated and it wasn’t confirmed that most definitely and without a shadow of a doubt an individual with an autistic disorder is most likely to become an alcoholic, this is due to the large comparison made between autism and ADH. Although an autistic person and a person with ADHD(containing autistic traits)share quite similar characteristics, I personally feel that one cannot simply compare an ADHD and an autistic person if they are looking to find factual information. However, to answer the question that was posed with regards to why the study conducted found elevated risk in people with autistic tendencies; I believe its due to the fact that these individuals already poses characteristics such as the inability to interact with people, they are socially withdrawn and drinking is seen as a social act that could help them to interact more with people and be more social. However there is that added risk that he or she may have an escalating pattern of drinking that leads to alcoholism.

  7. AW 14209650 May 4, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

    However much I agree with this blog, I can’t seem to get over the fact that I don’t believe this study was at all ground breaking. Okay sure, a connection between autism traits and alcohol dependency has never been made, but did this really require a study?
    People living with autistic tendencies, by definition, prefer to be excluded from social activities and interactions. Such people that are withdrawn and excluded from the world and what goes on in it have been shown to depend on something as means of a crutch (whether it be alcohol, drugs or any habit for that matter). Such habits give them stability and something they feel comfortable relying on.
    Therefore, although an interesting article, I wasn’t surprised or intrigued by the outcome whatsoever. Am I wrong in saying this?

  8. 12209385 May 4, 2014 at 11:43 am #

    Well, autism is a lifelong developmental disability that needs to be dealt with. Many people these days are suffering from this autism disorder and they do not even know it. They keep on going back to drinking so that they can be intoxicated thinking they are having fun whereas it is a psychiatric issue. Many of this victims have lack of communication and relating to other people. It is with ease for these kind of people to develop an alcoholic problem. It is with joy to know that educated people in this kind of field of study that deals with such problems are researching and trying to come with solutions and trying to help other people.

  9. u14040817 May 4, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    Previous studies showed that alcohol usage tend to give the said users more self-confidence and thus more social, outgoing and brave personality traits; traits that are seriously lacked in people with autism. These patients live with the need to live a more social lifestyle and so the vicious cycle makes its way into their lives and the severe case of alcohol abuse makes its appearance.

    The article shows a promising approach towards the research done and an overall idea that answers the thesis statement fairly specific. Although the question still comes to mind; “Is the substance use disorders caused by the autistic tendencies due to the patient’s genetics or is it due to the personality traits accompanied by autism?”

  10. 14064015 May 4, 2014 at 9:38 am #

    After reading this passage I can now understand why someone I know is so aroused by drugs and alcohol. This person suffers from ADHD and may sometimes show some autistic tendencies. It is a very sad image to think that this disorder has its own difficulties but can lead to other problems such as alcoholism and drug abuse.

    I feel like every autistic person or anyone that shows autistic traits should be informed about this new discovery so that they are more cautious and to avoid getting trapped in alcohol or drug abuse.

  11. Christelle May 4, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    I know 3 people with ADHD. The one is a highly qualified paramedic, who does not drink or smoke or use substances. I`ve never seen him take a sip of anything containing a high amount of alcohol. The second one is still young, but he does understand what alcohol and drugs are and what it can do. The third one is so much different than the one who is the paramedic. He drinks, smokes and has a history of substance abuse. He has been to rehab more than ones. I think that it depends on people with ADHD and artistic tendencies childhood. It also depends on the people`s family, as well as their parents history in alcohol and substance abuse. If people, any people, were exposed to drinking, smoking and drugs when they were young, I believe that they have a bigger chance to engage in it when they are an adult. Therefor I would go against the statement that is made in this blog, that people with artistic tendencies and people with ADHD, tend to alcoholism.

  12. u14129427 May 4, 2014 at 6:23 am #

    Although the research was not done on people with diagnosed autism, the relation between the behavior and tendencies of people with ADHD and autism sounds very pliable.

    If this is the case, it is a very sad state of affairs. These people whom under normal circumstance have difficulty adjusting and blending in sociably, now have a bigger problem they will go the further mile to be able to join a social group and if that means drinking with this group, that is what they will do. So in order to be accepted socially they are actually alienating them by becoming binge drinkers and addicted.

    Please let us do more research on this topic and especially on people with autism in order to establish exactly what it is that causes this reaction and to further this research to an extent where we will know how to treat or combat this problem.

  13. 14120918 May 4, 2014 at 5:18 am #

    Without using people with autism it is a known fact that social outcasts feel more apart of a group when alcohol is involved.Thus it makes sense that people with autism will more easily develope alcohol problems.

  14. u14174830 May 4, 2014 at 1:41 am #

    Although the research made is interesting, it is lacking a lot of evidence. The fact that the researchers did not study people with autism makes me doubt the article all the more. There are logical explanations that make sense, for example, autistic people display repetitive behaviour thus if they begin drinking alcohol until intoxication it is more likely that they will be alcohol dependent. I strongly agree with Agrawal when he or she explains saying that, “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.” I agree because people with many autism traits will not even bother using drugs, they are protected by their psychological state of not being eager to take risks or do something harmful. On the other hand, those with fewer autism traits are not so socially challenged and they can easily begin to drink alcohol than those with more traits. The danger of this is that while they do not have many symptoms some symptoms are there, for example, having a routine, therefore they may be stuck in an alcohol drinking cycle. Statistical figures are given about people with autism regarding their alcohol dependence as well as people with ADHD. The contrast between the symptoms of people ADHD and autism and similarities in how they handle substance abuse is very interesting, however, conclusions should not be made as this research is unreliable. There are factors that need to be still discovered, for example, the number of people with ADHD used for the research.

  15. C.E Janke 14026482 May 3, 2014 at 11:49 am #

    People with autism are said to think on a different mentality level in the sense that they analyze and comprehend situations differently to non-autistic people. I know this from personal experiences. Until thorough research has been done concerning this hypothesis “…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..” conclusions made should be seen open minded and not set in stone. As autism is a disorder concerning genetics and the researching into the understanding of genetics is evolving.

  16. u14041724 May 3, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    This is a very interesting article,what i would love to know is that,does this mean that people with autism somehow lack the genes to ‘resist’ these substances and could this be a result of gene mutation?

  17. Dylan Fromentin (14132126) May 3, 2014 at 7:36 am #

    u14008450, I believe the study in fact shows the opposite. If people with autistic traits have a statistically higher tendency to have problems with drinking, the there is most probably a causal link in genetic makeup. This is also shown by the fact that alcoholic traits tend to ‘run in the family’.

    I would however be interested to see what the results were with diagnosed autistic people, there may be a change in tendency. I do think that this might be quite an insensitive experiment for the subjects though.
    14132126

  18. u14008450 May 3, 2014 at 6:06 am #

    In response to the line that states “if they do start drinking, even alone, they tend to repeat that behaviour, which puts them at increased risk for alcohol dependence,” I would like to suggest that anyone (Autistic or not) has a risk of repeating the behaviour of drinking. I would like to strongly suggest that it is the will of an individual that results in habitual alcohol consumption and abuse. I do not agree that a biological inclination toward autism would be fuel enough to drive a individual’s decision toward alcoholism. The power of free will and the accountability of one’s self has been dramatically downplayed as far as taboo topics (eg. addiction) are concerned.

  19. MOLOBELA K.J May 3, 2014 at 2:47 am #

    Wow, I never thought there could be such serious health issues concerned with drinking. Hence, probably 75 percent or more individuals infected with this are not concerned or aware of this. It is a very informative post and i hope it reaches the eyes and ears of those who require this information more.

    Good to know, thank you.

  20. A,Mqambalala(u14293252) May 3, 2014 at 1:14 am #

    This provides more information on how Autism is a serious condition with long time effects. it can affect a patient from early childhood to adulthood. with the increasing rate of alcohol abuse amongst teenagers. this will help in finding ways to help the patients.

  21. Nompumelelo (14185653) May 3, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    1. If people with autism are mostly socially withdrawn and usually don`t like taking risks then if they do engage in binge drinking, do they then start being socially involved or do they feel like they fit in?

    2. As they have a problem in expressing themselves then do they engage in binge drinking because they think they have found new ground in better expressing themselves or maybe draw attention from other people so that they feel more in control?

    3. Generally does binge drinking change the characters of people with autism?

  22. Takudzwa Taapayi u13194098 May 2, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    This blog has surprised me. I would never expect someone with an autistic disorder to be hooked onto any type of substance that is harmful to the human body. Their nature forces me to judge them quickly.

    However, the more I think about it, people are not themselves when they consume any type of substance. Some people become the person they’ve always wanted to be when they’ve abused a particular substance. This means that alcohol, marijuana, cocaine etc don’t always have a negative impact on some people. For example some people’s confidence increases so I can imagine an autistic person becoming a good orator or forming relationships and the like. However, this does not mean substance abuse is good for anyone. It causes harm to the human body and must not be consumed in excess.

    This blog has surely been an eye opener. It has taught me never to judge a book by it’s cover and also that anyone and everyone is capable of being hooked to a substance.

  23. u14143471 May 2, 2014 at 11:10 am #

    As an individual that displays a few characteristics of autism, I was inclined into reading this, and I can validate that some of the findings are true, I constantly fight urges of drinking alcohol and smoking because I know i’ll be plunged deep into that lifestyle,something that was left out of the research is the effect of some hereditary traits one attracts from the parents like I for one, also being socially inept(lacking social skills etc) induces the chances of being a heavy smoker or drinker because besides the trait of generally having repetitive tendencies,emotions are at play to…what disappoints me about the finding is the ethos build around the conclusion, the research wasn’t demographic but stuck to making up assumptions instead of putting the test to practice, non-the-less exciting insight,on both parties of ADHD and autistic spectrum disorder.

  24. u14321620 May 2, 2014 at 8:46 am #

    This is very interesting to me, as I have individuals in my family who have a great variety of autistic traits, this information has cautioned me into observing and keeping a close eye their habits and traits in this matter as well.

    Although I have a few questions.
    1. If it is known whether these individuals’ families were also investigated to see whether these abusive traits (in alcohol,drugs,etc) could not have been hereditary?
    2. If these studies are accurate because of the fact that they were not done on a vast majority of actual autistic people?

    Thank you.

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