DRUGS, YOUR CHILD &
THE AUTISM SPECTRUM
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
Alcohol can also interfere with many medications,
especially anti-epileptic drugs which may be taken for seizures
which are a common comorbid
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
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
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.
HOW CAN I TELL IF MY CHILD IS USING DRUGS?
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
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’.
WHAT IF I THINK THERE IS A SERIOUS PROBLEM?
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
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.
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.