Fact sheet on drug and alcohol issues for parents of a child with Autism,  Asperger's syndrome, or other  Autism Spectrum Disorder


Like adults, young people drink and use drugs for many reasons, both positive (to feel good) and negative (to escape problems). All families can find the situation challenging, but for the young person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the issues are often more complex. In general, drugs and alcohol are riskier for someone on the autism spectrum than for other young people.

Autism and Asperger's syndrome increase the vulnerability of young people to misuse of both legal drugs and illegal ones. The desire to have friends and fit in may make a young person more vulnerable to peer group pressure. Some young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders drink or use drugs to mask painful experiences or cope with stress — frequent heavy drinking may thus be an indicator of other problems such as bullying or loneliness.

Autism Spectrum Disorders often affects the skills that are needed to use drugs and alcohol sensibly and safely – social skills, insight, organization and understanding what is appropriate behavior in a given context.

Alcohol can also interfere with many medications, especially anti-epileptic drugs which may be taken for seizures which are a common comorbid disorder.


The issues are complex for young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders. There are subtle differences in brain structure that could mean drugs affect them in a much stronger way than normal. Certain drugs could have a major impact on existing problems. For example, the use of amphetamines, more commonly known as speed, could greatly increase any existing anxiety disorders a young person experiences.


SHOULD I prevent my child from USING DRUGS?

For some parents or carers, ‘no’ may seem like the most sensible message. Other parents assume they can’t – or shouldn't – prevent experimentation with ‘forbidden’ activities and they therefore aim to reduce the chance of harm to the young person.

Forbidding use can sometimes have the opposite effect of what is intended. It may be more constructive to set clear limits – for example, one can of beer at a party – rather than saying ‘no alcohol’.

Carrying out any plan – whether it involves saying no to drugs or using them safely – may be difficult if a young person has problems with judging a social situation, interacting and behaving appropriately, anticipating problems, and following through a plan of action.

It may be best to focus on controlling exposure to drugs and alcohol. This means setting clear limits and keeping some control over the young person’s social environment. It may help to discuss this with a professional who understands both Autism Spectrum Disorder and substance abuse; or, if not available, someone with expertise in youth substance abuse, and make sure they understand the issues relating to your child's Autism Spectrum Disorder. Above all, you should, as a family, choose the approach that suits your own style, values and circumstances.


should i encourage RESPONSIBILITY in my child?

For almost all young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders, the short answer is ‘yes’ — given an approach tailored to the young person’s particular abilities and problems. Parents often find it valuable to talk with a professional about this. A professional can assess your child's strengths and problems, and work with you to develop and carry out a program to teach the skills needed.

The following broad guidelines may also help. Be responsible yourself in your use of alcohol and drugs, and talk about responsible use with your child. You can teach your son or daughter ways to resist peer pressure – for example, always carry a full glass at a party, or fill your own glass with soft drink

Drop off and pick up the young person from parties, or pay for a taxi fare home. Don't say ‘no’ to everything, as this may push young people towards problem behavior. Young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder may also need firm and clear rules about what's acceptable and safe, as the complexity of social situations is better understood if there are firm 'rules' and boundaries set.



It’s not always easy. The effects of Autism Spectrum Disorder can look like the so-called ‘warning signs’ of regular drug use, such as disregard for others, a drop in school performance, speech difficulties, or emotional outbursts and rapid mood swings.

It can be difficult to decide whether these are simply part of the Autism Spectrum Disorder, or a sign of problems with alcohol or other drugs. Your best guide, as a parent, is probably your own knowledge of your child and your ‘gut feeling’.



Young people seldom tell their parents about a drug or alcohol problem, either spontaneously or when asked directly. Someone with experience of Autism Spectrum Disorders, young people and substance abuse – if you can find such a person – can provide useful guidance. Otherwise, find someone with experience in young people and substance abuse, and ensure they understand the issues relating to your child's Autism Spectrum Disorder.


For some young people, drug use can become a serious and debilitating problem, but most who experiment with drugs grow out of it with little or no long-term damage. Drug use is a reason for concern, but not for panic.

If your child with Autism Spectrum Disorder needs professional assistance, you may have to support him/her in seeking this. Difficulties with short-term memory, organization and planning can prevent young people from taking the initiative themselves. Ideally, find someone who is knowledgeable about both Autism Spectrum Disorders and drug issues. In reality, you may need to talk to, and bring together, an Autism Spectrum Disorder specialist and a person who is knowledgeable about drug and alcohol issues.

Try to keep channels of communication open – be ready to talk and listen in a supportive, non-judgmental way. Take a ‘problem solving’ approach, possibly with outside expert advice. Be clear about how you and your family approach the issue. You need to deliver a clear, consistent message to your young person.

Discipline needs to be rational and sensible. Don't start something you can’t carry through (for example, threatened punishments), but set firm limits on what you will and won’t do.

Do whatever you can to make sure your child is safe, even when he or she is doing something you Don't approve of.

Consider talking with someone at the school – maybe your child's teacher, the year level coordinator, the school nurse, the school counselor – bearing in mind any confidentiality issues for your child. A school with a positive and preventive approach to drug-related issues can be very supportive and helpful.

Provide your child with opportunities for being involved in community activities in a positive way – for example, in sports teams or youth groups.

Do things together with your child, and as a family. Show an active interest in his or her activities and notice achievements.

Find out what you can about drugs and the actual risks involved. Contact your autism or Asperger's syndrome association for organizations offering useful advice, information and services in relation to alcohol and other drugs.


Close this Autism fact sheet on alcohol and drug use by young people on the autism spectrum

Click here for the full range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
See the Family and Carer issues section of the website for more information.

Autism and Asperger's syndrome increase the vulnerability of young people to misuse of both legal drugs and illegal ones and parents need to look at various strategies to minimize their impact - education, setting examples, firm boundaries and discipline