Researchers from the University of Cambridge have found that people with autism are more likely than people without the condition to use recreational drugs to self-medicate for their mental health symptoms. The research was published in The Lancet Psychiatry.
Previous studies have found conflicting results on whether autistic people are more or less at risk of substance misuse and abuse. To understand why this may be the case, scientists at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge used different methods to consider the frequency of substance use among those with autism and their experiences of using the substances.
For the study, they gathered information from 1,183 autistic and 1,203 non-autistic people aged between 16 and 90 years old. Via an anonymous, online survey, each participant provided data on the frequency of their substance use. 919 people also gave qualitative information on their experiences of substance use.
All in all, adults with autism were less likely to use substances than non-autistic adults. While 22% of non-autistic adults reported drinking on three or more days per week, just 16% of autistic adults reported the same. Likewise, just 4% of autistic adults reported binge drinking, whereas the same was true for 8% of non-autistic adults.
From delving into the experiences of people using drugs, however, the researchers found that autistic adults were almost nine times more likely to use recreational drugs including cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamines than people without autism to manage aspects of their mental health. These included reducing sensory overload, enhancing mental focus, and providing routine. The researchers found that several autistic participants seemed to use substances to mask their autism.
The researchers also found that autistic adolescents were more than three times more likely than non-autistic adolescents to use substances to manage mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Several also disclosed that using recreational drugs allowed them to reduce doses of their prescribed medications, which they regarded positively due to some of their negative side effects.
“No one should feel that they need to self-medicate for these issues without guidance from a healthcare professional,” says Elizabeth Weir, lead researcher of the study.
“Identifying new forms of effective support is urgent considering the complex associations between substance use, mental health, and behavior management–particularly as camouflaging and compensating behaviors are associated with suicide risk among autistic individuals.”
“We continue to see new areas in which autistic adults experience vulnerability: mental health, physical health, suicide risk, lifestyle patterns, the criminal justice system, and so on.” explains Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the study’s authors.
“Substance use is now another area that we need to consider when developing new forms of support for autistic individuals. It is essential that we ensure that autistic people have equal access to high quality social and healthcare that can appropriately support their specific needs; and, unfortunately, it seems clear that our current systems are still not meeting this mark.”