Co-Occurring Developmental Disorders And Addiction

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on April 19, 2021

People with intellectual disabilities, or developmental disorders, can be a higher risk for developing drug and alcohol use disorders. Treating substance abuse in people with developmental disorders may require an integrated treatment approach.

Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on April 19, 2021
Dual Diagnosis Development Disorders And Addiction

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:

  • alcohol
  • tobacco
  • marijuana
  • 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:

  • detoxification
  • 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.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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