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Addiction – A guide for autistic adults

Addiction can and does happen to anybody.  You can be addicted to many different things, like alcohol, drugs or computer games. Addiction is probably just as common in autistic people as in non-autistic people.  

It is possible that people who have a dual diagnosis of autism and ADHD are more likely to develop addictions. You are also more likely to have an addiction to something if a relative or friend has an addiction too.

1. What is addiction? 

The National Health Service describes addiction as “not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.”  

Addiction regularly refers to the overuse of gambling, drugs, alcohol and nicotine but it is important to recognise that it can also include reliance on work, the internet or technology, and shopping.  

People often develop an addiction if they are struggling to cope with everyday life or have particular difficulty in their lives. For some people, an addiction helps them to live with these challenges but that addiction is likely to cause further problems. For example, it could cause or increase problems with money, with relationships or with executive functions, ie concentration, organising or planning even routine daily tasks, or understanding your own feelings and learning to manage them.   

You can find more general information about addiction on the NHS website as well as the Action Addiction website.  

Social situations can be difficult for autistic people, so they might use drugs and alcohol to make this feel easier. It might make autistic people feel more confident or able to cope with the world around them.  

Alcohol or drugs may be used to manage autistic traits such as sensory differences and social anxieties, as well as other features of autism but using alcohol and drugs can be very harmful.   

Drugs, alcohol and other addictive things like the internet or social media can cause many problems. For example, sometimes you might spend too much money on them, which may affect your relationships with family, friends or colleagues. 

2. I am addicted to something - what can I do?  

You might want to find help to deal with an addiction.  It might help to talk to a family member or a friend about what you are worried about. You may also want to speak to your GP for further support from addiction services.     

Talking to others could help you to think about any problems that you are facing. If you find new ways to deal with problems, you might not need the thing you are addicted to as much.   

Counselling and therapy  

If you would like to access counselling or therapy, you can do this via your GP or privately. There are many types of counselling and therapy, including CBT that have been shown to be effective for some autistic people. All talking therapies should be adapted to be effective for autistic people. 

You might want to look for local addiction support groups in your area.  

Conventional addiction therapy may not be suitable for you. Normally, most treatment for addictions is done in a group. You might not like this or you might not feel comfortable in a group. That is OK. If you are referred to an addiction service, it is important to tell them you are autistic so they can adapt their approach for you.  

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