Despite autistic adolescents and adults being less likely to use reactional drugs, those who do are more likely to self-medicate, finds research from the University of Cambridge.
Content warning: This article briefly mentions suicidal ideation.
The findings of the study conducted by the Autism Research Centre found that autistic adults were nearly nine times more likely to report that they use recreational drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines, to manage unwanted behaviours and feelings, including those related to their neurodiversity.
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“Our current systems are still not meeting [the] mark”
Drugs were reportedly being used to reduce sensory overload and to seemingly control their behaviours related to their neurodiversity, among other reasons. Previous research has shown that this form of behaviour management, known as camouflaging, has been linked to emotional exhaustion, worse mental health outcomes, and even increased risk of suicide among autistic adults.
Autistic individuals were also three times more likely to respond that they were using substances to manage feelings of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Many participants explicitly noting that they were using drugs for self-medication.
On the other hand, Autistic adults were less likely than their non-autistic peers to use substances overall. Only 16% of autistic adults reported drinking three or more days a week than 22% of non-autistic adults. And only 4% of autistic adults said they binge drink compared to 8% of non-autistic adults.
Elizabeth Weir, the lead author of the study, said of the findings: "It is evident that the current systems of health and social care support are not meeting the needs of many autistic teenagers and adults.”
"No one should feel that they need to self-medicate for these issues without guidance from a healthcare professional.”
“Identifying new forms of effective support is urgent considering the complex associations between substance use, mental health, and behaviour management - particularly as camouflaging and compensating behaviours are associated with suicide risk among autistic individuals."
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Drug misuse linked to experiences of vulnerability and abuse
Another area of concern highlighted by the research was the association between vulnerability and the use of recreational drugs. Autistic individuals were over four times more likely to report the use of substances to cope with trauma and associations linked to dependency and addiction.
Furthermore, the study highlighted two new areas of vulnerability: being forced or tricked into taking drugs; and childhood use of substances.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre and a member of the team, commented: "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.”
“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.”
“Unfortunately, it seems clear that our current systems are still not meeting this mark.”
Autistica responds to the report
Dr Lorcan Kenny, Head of Research at Autistica, the UK’s national autism research charity, urged caution to the study’s findings, saying that there could be other reasons behind the responses detailed in the research. Although, he also commented that if the results are genuine and can be replicated, the findings should send “a powerful message” that mental health support for autistic people must be improved.
"This study shows that autistic people are less likely than non-autistic people to engage in risky behaviour with alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. When asked about drug use, autistic people were more likely than non-autistic survey respondents to mention using drugs to manage their behaviour or mental health.”
“As with any study based on survey responses, it is possible that autistic people were more honest when reporting that they have engaged in illegal behaviour than non-autistic respondents."
“However, if the results of this study are true, this sends a powerful message that we must improve the support that autistic people receive for their mental health and social difficulties. If we don't, this study suggests that autistic people may turn to unregulated and potentially life-threatening alternatives."
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