Neurodiversity and addiction: who is at risk?

Thanks to celebrities such as singer Billie Eilish and activist Greta Thunberg opening up about their neurodiversities on social media, as well as ex-footballer Jermaine Pennant who recently discussed the topic of ADHD and addiction on The One Show, awareness surrounding addiction and neurodiversity is growing.

Research has found that conditions like ADHD represent a risk factor in the early onset of addiction, with many ADHD sufferers experiencing more severe and prolonged substance use disorders. But what causes the intrinsic link between addiction and neurodiversity? And what steps should you take if these conditions are a part of your life?

What is neurodiversity?

As described by Nick Walker, PhD, “The diversity among minds is a natural, healthy and valuable form of human diversity”, and the term neurodiversity holds this principle at its core. It is important to recognise and celebrate neurodiversity, while at the same time providing support for those affected by neurodivergent conditions and the heightened risk of addiction.

Some of the most common neurodivergent conditions include:

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Other learning disabilities

An estimated 15% of the population is thought to be neurodiverse, but in reality, this figure could be much higher. For many, their neurodivergence goes undiagnosed and untreated, which can lead to substance use disorders and behavioural addictions down the line.

Why does neurodivergence go undiagnosed?

Despite increasing awareness of neurodivergence, social stigma, gender bias and lack of resources can all contribute towards these conditions going undiagnosed.

As an example, studies have shown that females with ADHD are more likely to present inattentive and internalised symptoms, making it more difficult to spot. It has also been found that females often develop masking strategies to conceal their ADHD symptoms.

Other findings have found that people of colour are diagnosed with autism much later, if at all. This places minority groups at a higher risk of addiction due to a lack of support or treatment.

Addiction and neurodiversity: what’s the link?

The link between addiction and neurodiversity is complex and involves a variety of factors that may present differently in every person. Often a combination of environmental and physical factors work together to propel you towards substance or behavioural addiction.


Sensory processing

If you are a neurodivergent individual, you may experience sensory information (such as sounds, smells, or touch) differently than neurotypical individuals. Sensory processing difficulties typically come in two forms, but it is not uncommon to experience a combination of both:

  • Hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli: You may try to avoid loud or busy places, have a limited diet or dislike being touched. This can often result in feeling overwhelmed and anxious, which may lead to addiction as you attempt to numb these feelings with substances.
  • Hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli: You may feel underwhelmed by the world around you and as a result try to seek out extra sensory stimuli. This also has the potential to lead to addiction if you use substances as a form of stimulation.

Executive function

Executive function refers to a set of cognitive skills that help you plan, organise, prioritise and execute tasks. If you are neurodivergent, you may struggle with executive function, which can make it harder to resist impulsive behaviours or make long-term plans. This can contribute to addiction as you are more likely to engage in activities that provide short-term pleasure but have long-term negative consequences.

Social isolation

Many neurodivergent individuals struggle with social skills and may experience social isolation and rejection. Social isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, sadness and worthlessness, which can increase the risk of addiction as individuals seek to cope with these negative emotions using substances.

Co-occurring conditions

Many neurodivergent individuals also have co-occurring conditions, such as anxiety or depression. These mental health conditions can increase the risk of addiction as you may use substances or engage in addictive behaviours to cope with your symptoms.

Addiction and neurodiversity: prevention and treatment strategies

As a neurodivergent individual, it is important to recognise the signs of a growing addiction and take steps to treat it. An addiction is defined as the compulsive urge to engage in addictive behaviours, despite being aware of the damage it is causing. This includes drug addiction and alcoholism, but also behavioural addictions such as gaming, obsessive porn watching, shopping or gambling.

If you find yourself unable to control the addictive behaviour, and it has started to cause problems in your life, you can take action by:

  • Managing your neurodivergent symptoms: This could mean talking to your doctor about appropriate medication, seeing a therapist or making accommodations to your everyday life (for example, using noise-cancelling headphones if you are struggling to cope with sensory experiences). Addressing your primary condition is vital if you want to overcome addiction.
  • Finding social support: Attending peer support groups can help you to build social connections in a like-minded circle and reduce feelings of isolation and rejection, reducing your need to engage in addictive behaviours.
  • Attending coaching sessions: Executive function coaching, for example, can help you to develop strategies for managing impulsivity, organising tasks and making long-term plans, giving you more control and reducing anxieties that may lead to substance abuse.
  • Trying out holistic therapies: Holistic therapies such as mindfulness, yoga or art therapy can be beneficial in regulating emotions and improving overall well-being, and are also especially useful in addiction treatment.

Most importantly, getting the right help for your addiction is crucial. UKAT offers an inclusive, safe space that is mindful of your individual needs. Our expert team not only focuses on addiction treatment but also aims to address any co-occurring mental health disorders that you may be experiencing alongside your neurodivergent condition.