Autism and addiction

Navigating life with autism brings forth a multitude of obstacles, influencing your perspective and engagement with the world. When coupled with addiction, it can form a reinforcing loop, with each condition exacerbating the other’s impact on your physical and mental health and overall quality of life. However, UKAT can provide a genuine beacon of hope amidst these hardships. We are dedicated to helping you overcome addiction while simultaneously developing strategies and coping mechanisms to make living with autism more manageable. This journey is about achieving sobriety and creating a more satisfying life.


What is autism?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. It is a “spectrum” disorder because it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. This means that while some people with autism require significant support in their daily lives, others may live independently and even have notable talents and abilities.

Autism affects approximately 1 in 100 people, occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, but is about three times more common among boys than girls.

What are the most common autism symptoms?

There are various symptoms and signs of autism which present at various points on the spectrum. It is important to understand, however, that each person exhibits their own unique set of autism symptoms, which can make diagnosis, management and treatment very difficult. Some common signs of autism include:

Social communication and interaction challenges

People with autism often find social nuances difficult to grasp. They may not understand sarcasm, take things very literally, or struggle to make and maintain eye contact. Many also find it difficult to interpret body language, tone of voice, and expressions, all essential for understanding and responding in conversations. These difficulties in reading social cues can make forming and sustaining relationships challenging and can also lead to extreme social anxiety.

Restricted interests and repetitive behaviours

Many autistic individuals are interested in specific topics or activities and prefer to follow a routine. Any disruption to these routines can be extremely distressing and illicit a disproportionate and inconsolable reaction in the most severe cases. Repetitive behaviours, such as hand-flapping or rocking, are also common and can be a source of comfort or a way to express excitement or distress.

Sensory sensitivities

Over- or under-sensitivity to sensory input is another of the most recognisable autism symptoms. This can manifest as discomfort or distress from loud noises, bright lights, certain textures or specific tastes and smells. These sensory challenges can significantly impact daily life, making some environments overwhelming or unpleasant.

What causes autism?

The causes of autism are complex and multifaceted, with no single cause identified. Instead, autism is thought to be caused by a dynamic interplay between genetics and environmental factors unique to each individual. These factors include:


Research suggests that genes can play a significant role in autism as various genetic mutations, some inherited and others occurring spontaneously, are associated with ASD. However, possessing these mutations does not guarantee that a person will develop autism, and it is believed that certain environmental triggers are also necessary.

Environmental influences

While the exact environmental factors are still being studied, research points to the parent’s’ age at the time of conception, complications during pregnancy and birth, and very early childhood development as potential contributors. It is important to note that these factors do not cause autism but may increase the risk when combined with the above genetic predispositions.

What is the link between addiction and autism?

For individuals with autism, the world can often feel overwhelming and confusing. To cope with these intense emotions and sensory challenges, some may turn to substances or addictive behaviours to temporarily provide relief.

The neurological differences in individuals with autism can also potentially make them more susceptible to addictive behaviours. They may find certain substances or activities particularly rewarding, using them as a tool to manage the challenges posed by their autism. Whether it’s the calming effect of alcohol, the adrenaline rush of gambling, the escapism found in drugs or the structured world of gaming, these activities initially seem to alleviate the stressors associated with autism. However, this can quickly spiral into addiction as tolerance builds, and more of the substance or behaviour is needed to achieve the same effect.

Social isolation is a significant factor in the development of addiction in individuals with autism. The challenges in social communication and interaction can lead to feelings of loneliness and misunderstanding, making the allure of addictive substances or behaviours even stronger. These activities can become a form of self-medication used to manage feelings of isolation and social anxiety.

Whatever the initial route, when addiction and autism coexist, they can create a vicious cycle. The drugs, alcohol or addictive behaviour may initially seem like a solution to the challenges of autism, but over time, it exacerbates these challenges, leading to an increased reliance and, ultimately, addiction.

How do autism and addiction manifest?

At UKAT, we see many people with dual diagnosis autism and addiction in various forms, including:

Autism and alcohol addiction

Alcohol addiction in individuals with autism often starts as a means to alleviate the intense social anxiety and communication difficulties they experience. However, while alcohol can temporarily ease the stress of social interactions, reliance can quickly escalate into addiction, further complicating the ability to engage in healthy social relationships.

Autism and gambling addiction

Gambling might initially appeal to someone with autism due to its structured, rule-based nature and the clear reward system. However, the predictability and routine of gambling can become addictive, with the individual seeking the thrill of the gamble as a respite from the unpredictability of everyday life.

Autism and drug addiction

Drug addiction can develop as individuals with autism seek to self-medicate. They may use drugs to dull sensory sensitivities, mitigate social anxiety or escape feelings of isolation and misunderstanding. However, drug use can quickly exacerbate the symptoms of autism, leading to a worsening cycle of dependency and impaired functioning.

Autism and gaming addiction

For individuals with autism, the structured, rule-based world of gaming can be highly appealing. It offers a controlled environment with clear objectives and rewards, providing a sense of accomplishment and escape. Online gaming also provides a way of socialising without the anxiety of physical interactions. However, these benefits can lead to excessive gaming, where the virtual world becomes preferable to the complexities and sensory challenges of the real world, leading to addiction.

What does addiction and autism treatment involve?

Treating addiction in individuals with autism requires a specialised approach to address the unique challenges faced by those with ASD. Sensory sensitivities, communication barriers and the need for routine and predictability must be considered in treatment plans to ensure they can fully engage with and benefit from the treatment.

UKAT’s rehab centres have vast experience treating addiction in those with ASD while also providing them with key skills and strategies which make living with autism easier. Our new UKAT London Clinic is able to provide treatment for both autism and addiction as individual conditions as well as comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment which addresses both simultaneously.

Our rehab treatment programmes include:

One-to-one therapy
This therapy offers a safe space for individuals to explore their feelings, challenges and the underlying causes of their addiction. It is particularly beneficial for those with autism who struggle with social communication, providing an opportunity to express themselves without the pressures of a group setting.
Group therapy
While challenging, group therapy can be adapted to be more accessible for individuals with autism. This may involve smaller groups, a structured format, and incorporating activities that facilitate interaction without overwhelming sensory input.
Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are highly effective in helping individuals understand and change the thought patterns and behaviours that fuel both addiction and autism. These therapies can be particularly useful in addressing the rigid thinking and behavioural patterns often found in autism, providing immense relief to sufferers and greatly improving their quality of life.
Meditation and mindfulness
These practices can help in managing sensory overload and reducing anxiety, common issues for individuals with autism. They offer techniques to stay present and grounded, which can be beneficial in coping with the challenges of both autism and addiction.
Aftercare is crucial in maintaining the progress made during treatment. Weekly group therapy sessions offer a structured environment for individuals to share their experiences, challenges and successes. These sessions also provide ongoing support, helping to reinforce coping strategies and encouraging continued growth and development.

Begin your new life today

The journey to overcoming addiction and managing autism is undoubtedly challenging, but it is also filled with opportunities for growth, learning and self-discovery. At UKAT, we are committed to supporting you throughout this journey. Our comprehensive treatment programmes are designed to address the unique challenges of living with autism and addiction, providing you with the tools and support needed to begin your new life. Contact us today to start your journey to a new life with UKAT.

Call us now for help


Is Asperger’s Syndrome the same as autism?
Asperger’s Syndrome, once considered a separate disorder, is now classified under ASD in the latest diagnostic manuals. Individuals with Asperger’s typically exhibit social challenges and peculiar interests or behaviours similar to those with autism but without significant delays in language and cognitive development often seen in autism. Asperger’s is generally viewed as a milder form of autism with key differences, particularly in language and intellectual abilities. However, it is important to note that each individual’s experience with ASD is unique, and so its effects and challenges vary from person to person.