Contrary to public opinion, autism is not a safeguard against substance abuse. In fact, experts say people diagnosed with autism are just as likely, if not more likely, to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the challenges of their lives. Elizabeth Kunreuther, clinical instructor at the University of North Carolina Wakebrook Addiction Treatment Center and co-author of Drinking, Drug Use and Addiction in the Autism Community, explains what autism is, why people with autism turn to harmful substances, and the implicit ethical implications.
Many family members and friends assume that their loved one is immune from substance abuse because of several protective factors inherent in autism, such as social and sensory issues and rule-following behavior. But, Kunreuther says, these factors are not as protective as they seem. People with autism struggle to fit in with society and thus can develop a dependence on various substances. She also points out that if the person with autism is indeed helped through substances, she believes there is nothing wrong with their use, as long as it is moderated.
Providing another perspective, Matthew Tinsley, Asperger syndrome patient and co-author of Asperger Syndrome and Alcohol: Drinking to Cope, shares the story of his own experience, as he struggled with using alcohol as a coping mechanism. He says that being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, is what helped him move away from an unhealthy addiction.
To learn more about autism and its connection to substance abuse, visit Kunreuther’s and Tinsley’s websites in the links below.
Elizabeth Kunreuther, Clinical Instructor at University of North Carolina Wakebrook Addiction Treatment Center and co-author of Drinking, Drug Use and Addiction in the Autism Community
Matthew Tinsley, Asperger syndrome patient and co-author of Asperger Syndrome and Alcohol: Drinking to Cope
Recent studies show that people with autism are twice as likely as others to engage in substance abuse, contrary to previous belief that they are extremely unlikely to use drugs or alcohol. An expert and an author who has used alcohol to cope with his autism discuss the developments and their impact.
Drowning: It Doesn’t Look Like You Think
Seven hundred children under age 15 drown in the US each year, most within sight of a parent or other adult. Experts discuss one major reason: drowning doesn’t look like most people picture it, and so are unaware the child is in trouble.
True prodigies are hard to find. Only one in every five to ten million people are labeled a prodigy. A diagnosis of autism, on the other hand, occurs once in every 88 people.
Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University and the author of The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent. She says her research shows a strong link between prodigies and autism.
Ruthsatz interviewed thirty prodigies and noticed over half of them had a close relative with autism, including several prodigies with multiple autistic family members. She also notes many of the characteristics of prodigies are shared with people with autism. Both are inclined to have an extraordinary recall and repetitive behaviors.
Ruthsatz says prodigies have a unique proclivity for a certain skill. These skills typically include math, music, art, and chess, the same four skills displayed in individuals with autism. This led Ruthsatz to investigate a genetic link between autism and prodigies. She found prodigies and their autistic relatives had a common genetic mutation. Ruthsatz hopes to identify the ‘moderator’ gene. A gene that allows prodigies to have the shared proclivity in one area without the deficits that autistic individuals experience in all other areas. This could ultimately result in a treatment or medicine that could mimic this moderator gene and potentially change the lives of people with autism.
Dr. Jennifer Gerdts, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington and an attending psychologist at the Seattle Children’s Autism Center, says further research needs to be done to back up Ruthsatz conclusions. Since prodigies are so rare, Gerdts says it would be extremely difficult to find a big enough sample size, which would require hundreds of prodigies.
Gerdts agrees that finding the link between autism and prodigies could potentially result in major scientific breakthroughs. Finding a specific mutation or absence of a gene that’s common to both groups could explain the similarities between the prodigies and their autistic relatives. In a best-case scenario, the discovery could result in the development of a medical treatment or cure for autism.
Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz, Assistant Professor of Psychology, The Ohio State University and author, The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent
Dr. Jennifer Gerdts, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Washington and attending psychologist, Seattle Children’s Autism Center
Firefighters have extremely high rates of PTSD, similar to combat soldiers, yet are very reluctant to seek help. Experts discuss reasons for this reluctance, results of it, and how new efforts at peer counseling may help ease the psychological strain.
Autism and Prodigies
Behavioral similarities between prodigies and some people with autism have long been noted. Now some researchers are beginning to find genetic links between the two phenomena. Experts discuss findings and their implications for autism treatment.
In the last 30 years, the number of children that are diagnosed with autism has increased, yet parents have received very little information on what has caused this number to skyrocket. Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, explains that the spike in diagnoses was caused by the development of a new definition for autism. He says that it was initially believed to be caused by a mixture of bad parenting and genetics, making it into a taboo topic, and allowing many people to ignore its presence for almost thirty years.
Over time, autism has become more visible to the public, yet people still have a skewed understanding of what it is. Silberman explains that autism is a lifelong disorder that can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Dr. Barry Prizant, Professor of Artists & Scientists As Partners Group at Brown University, and author of Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, states that many of the behaviors that we identify as symptoms of autism are often coping mechanisms for those who are autistic to deal with an environment that can be overwhelming. Among the traits of autism is the inability to easily communicate, which can make this disorder particularly disabling for some.
Since autism has become more prevalent in our culture, it is important for people to understand the myths surrounding autism and take steps to better understand the disorder. Silberman explains that too much money is being spent on looking for risk factors, and not enough is going towards research to help autistic individuals and their families. Dr. Prizant states that the current treatments do little to help autistic individuals, and in some cases can make their lives more difficult. Although research into what causes autism is imperative to understanding the disorder, there should be more focus on making life easier for those who suffer with it everyday.
Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
Dr. Barry Prizant, Professor of Artists & Scientists As Partners Group at Brown University, and author of Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism
New research shows that most people with ADHD have a disordered body clock, prompting disturbed sleep, sleep deprivation, and a worsening of ADHD symptoms. Experts discuss how fixing the body clock could lessen the impact of both ADHD and physical diseases that result from poor sleep.
Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome
A real-life version of the Star Trek Tricorder, a non-invasive remote medical diagnostic machine, has won a major contest after passing multiple tests. Now it faces FDA scrutiny to go onto the market. Its developer discusses what the device is and how it could be used.
Experts have believed that autism affects four times as many boys as girls, but the ratio may not actually be quite that high. Doctors are learning that autism shows up differently in girls’ behavior as a result of brain differences. This leaves many girls with autism undiagnosed.