The world is a social place. Tiny babies are expected to connect with their parents, share their toys, and otherwise relate to the people who care for them. Young children are asked to form friendships, work with teachers, and respect their elders. Adults, in turn, might be asked to collaborate, connect and share with their colleagues at work. It’s all a lot to take in, and sometimes it can be a little frustrating. In fact, it’s safe to say that almost every human being on the planet has thought about leaving the needs of others behind in order to focus on the self.
In the past, people like this were often given a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. While the name of this disorder has fallen out of favor, the problems felt by these people are very real and very much present. In some cases, they can lead to addiction.
In 2013, after a review that suggested that the Asperger’s syndrome label was being applied to different people at different times, the American Psychiatric Association removed that diagnosis from its formal rulebook.
Now, rather than being given their own name for their illnesses, people who once thought of themselves as having Asperger’s are now encouraged to think of their symptoms as being part of a spectrum. Their issues are on one side of the spectrum, while those with more severe symptoms have a classic form of autism. People who have autism, no matter where they are on the spectrum, have lives that are marked by dysfunctional connections.
People like this may be profoundly gifted or quite knowledgeable, but they may be unable to communicate that talent to others or somehow make it universal. A person like this might know a lot about doorknobs, for example, and may be able to talk for hours about how these devices work and how they have changed over time, but this person might not see that the recipient of the conversation has grown bored or wants to talk about something else. The stream of talking is hard to break.
In addition to these communication problems, some people with disorders on the autism spectrum struggle with feelings of aggression. When they’re blocked or somehow prevented from doing the things they feel are interesting or important, they can fly into rages that take them a long time to come out of.
It’s not quite clear what causes this particular set of difficulties, but researchers say that people who have disorders on this spectrum can’t ever really be cured. They might learn to live with their disabilities and keep their feelings of sorrow at bay, but they might always have some set of behaviors that are attributed to Asperger’s. For some, these symptoms involve substance use and abuse.
Some studies, such as one published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, suggest that Asperger’s syndrome isn’t connected to a heightened risk of addiction, as people who have this disorder don’t tend to seek out unusual experiences. They seem to like things that are predictable, measurable and programmable, so they wouldn’t enjoy the strange sights and sounds a bout of drug use or a bolt of alcohol could deliver.
But there are some people who struggle so much with the connection part of Asperger’s that they might be tempted to smooth their rough edges with drugs or drink. If these people head to a party, they might drink in order to fit in and feel as though they’re part of the group. They might also drink as a way to medicate the feelings of nervousness or anger that arise when they’re placed in social situations.
It’s also possible that people with Asperger’s could become addicted to substances due to the obsessive nature of their thoughts. For example, a 2013 study suggests that children who had autism were likely to spend twice as much time playing video games as were children who did not have the disorder.
Autism disorders just seem to make people interested in doing the same things, over and over again, looking for different results each time. Just as some people might get interested in games, others might get interested in drink or drugs.
Any sort of substance might be of interest to someone with Asperger’s, but it’s possible that people like this lean on drugs they can easily buy. Their poor social skills don’t allow them to make connections with street-level dealers, and they may not know how to discern who a dealer is, so they may not be comfortable with the idea of buying drugs on the street.
However, people who have Asperger’s may use drugs like prescription painkillers on a regular basis, because they can get these drugs from their doctors. They may also like alcoholic beverages, and they may find that those substances are easy enough to purchase at a store or in a bar. Substances like this can soothe, sedate and boost euphoria, and all of them might be attractive to people who are dealing with Asperger’s pain.
People with addictions and Asperger’s often benefit from therapies that address the other mental illnesses that may be in play. For example, in a study in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities, researchers suggest that people with disorders on the autism spectrum often deal with other mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. These additional mental illnesses can make life even harder for someone with Asperger’s, and that may make these people vulnerable to a relapse in drug use and abuse.
In addition to therapies that specifically target depression and anxiety, people with Asperger’s may also benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in which they learn how to accept the messages from their minds without placing judgment upon them. In a session like this, people with Asperger’s might be encouraged to think about how they approach a party. Do they feel certain they’ll be rejected? Do they know they’ll say the wrong thing? They might then learn how to combat those assumptions with tests, or learn to skip parties altogether, if they make these people uncomfortable.
This is the kind of help you’ll find at Foundations Recovery Network facilities. We don’t attempt to label, brand or otherwise stigmatize people who have Asperger’s syndrome or addictions, but we do try to help people accept their conditions and limitations, so they won’t use harmful substances to mask their pain.
The work is hard but it can be quite rewarding, and it could lead to a completely different kind of life for people who have always struggled to connect, to collaborate and to heal. If you’d like to find out more about our work and how we could help either you or someone you love, please call 615-490-9376.