Developmental disorders, also known as intellectual disabilities, affect an estimated one in six children. As lifelong conditions, these can last into adolescence and adulthood.
More than five million adults in the United States are believed to have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which includes milder forms of autism such as Asperger’s syndrome.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), people with developmental disorders are more likely to have their substance abuse misdiagnosed, underrecognized, or lack access to appropriate treatment.
Learn more about co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders
What Are Developmental Disorders?
Developmental disorders are lifelong conditions typically diagnosed in childhood that can affect one’s learning and language abilities, as well as pose social and behavioral challenges.
One of the most common developmental disorders is an autism spectrum disorder, which can be mild to severe in nature. Mild autism was formerly diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome.
Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include:
- avoid eye contact
- prefer not to be hugged, cuddled, or held
- be very interested in other people but not know how to interact
- have trouble understanding others’ feelings
- have trouble picking up on social cues
- engage in repetitive behaviors
- repeat phrases said to them
- difficulty adapting to new routines
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be mild to severe in nature. The severity of a person’s developmental disorder can affect their ability to live independently as an adult.
Factors That Lead To Co-Occurring Behavioral And Addiction Disorders
People with developmental disorders are considered an underserved and underrecognized population in addiction treatment settings.
Substance use disorders in people with autism have historically been underrecognized by doctors, with several potential reasons to explain this.
Factors believed to contribute to this underdiagnosis include:
- infantilization of people with developmental disorders
- not being recognized as people who could abuse substances
- lack of research on substance abuse among this population
- symptoms of a developmental disorder may mask signs of substance abuse
- symptoms of prescription medications or mental illness may mask signs of substance abuse
Some research estimates that between five to 6.5 percent of people with a developmental disorder like autism also meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.
Addiction And Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism spectrum disorder affects less than one percent of children, according to the CDC. This disorder is characterized by social, behavioral, and communication challenges.
People with autism are generally at lower risk for abusing substances compared to the general population. People with autism may drink or use drugs to cope with distress or to find comfort.
Read more about co-occurring autism and addiction
Addiction And Asperger’s Syndrome
Asperger’s syndrome is a mild form of autism. As of 2013, this condition is now diagnosed as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
People with Asperger’s may use drugs or alcohol to manage social anxiety, nervousness, and distress.
Risk Factors For Co-Occurring Developmental Disorders And Addiction
There are several factors believed to increase the risk of developing a co-occurring drug or alcohol use disorder among people with a developmental disorder.
Risk factors include:
- having a mild to moderate developmental disorder
- facing high levels of stigma in community settings
- having co-occurring mental illness
- having untreated ASD
- living independently
- genetic predisposition
- family history of substance abuse
- having a criminal history
People with milder forms of autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome, are believed to be at higher risk for developing substance abuse issues compared to those with severe ASD.
Common Drugs Of Abuse Among People With Developmental Disorders
Substances abused by people with developmental disorders include:
- prescription drugs
- illicit drugs
People with developmental disorders are less likely to be in spaces where drug use is occurring and are less likely to have social contacts that would expand their access to drugs.
Signs Of Substance Abuse In People With Autism
People with developmental disorders who abuse drugs or alcohol may experience exacerbated symptoms of substance use, due to pre-existing issues with cognitive and social functioning.
Signs of substance abuse can include:
- social isolation
- using drugs or alcohol to cope with distress
- mood swings
- slurred speech
- poor impulse control
Some symptoms of intoxication overlap with those of developmental disorders. This can make it more difficult for some to identify when someone is misusing drugs or alcohol.
People with co-occurring substance use and developmental disorders can be at higher risk for victimization, misdiagnosis, and getting caught up in the criminal justice system.
Treatment For Substance Abuse And Developmental Disorders
Substance abuse treatment for people with developmental disorders, like with traditional treatment programs, may involve several components.
Addiction treatment programs may include:
- individual substance abuse counseling
- group therapy adapted for people with special needs
- family counseling
- medication-assisted treatment
Applying a trauma-informed approach to treatment is highly recommended by SAMHSA.
Furthermore, there are several guidelines suggested for individual counselors to use while working with people who have a developmental disorder.
Finding Addiction Treatment For People With Autism
If you’re looking for addiction treatment for someone in your life with a developmental disorder, we may be able to help.
By calling today, we can:
- identify a suitable treatment program
- discuss your or your loved one’s needs
- help you choose a treatment program that’s right for you
Call our helpline today to find a dual diagnosis addiction treatment program that’s right for you.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- American Academy of Pediatrics—Prevalence and Trends of Developmental Disabilities among Children in the United States: 2009-2017
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—Developmental Disabilities Prevalence Trends
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—Key Findings: CDC Releases First Estimates of the Number of Adults Living with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the United States
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
- Oxford Academic—Disparities in Access to Substance Abuse Treatment among People with Intellectual Disabilities and Serious Mental Illness
- Social Work Today—Substance Abuse in People With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)—Substance Use Disorder for People with Physical and Cognitive Disabilities