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🔍 Autism & Addiction: Hidden Challenges in Relationships 🔍


Meet Sara and Mark.


Mark is autistic and, in our third therapy session, his struggles with alcohol became the BIG topic of discussion. 


For years, alcohol use sent their relationship on a rollercoaster of misunderstandings and pain. 


Whenever Sarah’s parents visited or Mark’s work became overwhelming, Mark would secretly drink. However, it wasn’t secret enough. Sarah would pick up on subtle clues, confront Mark, who would feel defensive and ashamed and would completely shut down.


Sarah never understood why Mark drank and viewed his struggle as a personality flaw.

Mark didn't want to drink, yet he couldn't find another way to cope. And he hated Sarah telling him what to do. It was painful for both of them! 


Fortunately, they didn't give up.


Instead, they tried neuro-informed therapy. 


In our work together, they could finally stop blaming each other and take a deeper look at themselves. They learned to look beyond the alcohol to the underlying stressors. Eventually, they quit seeing each other as the enemy and started working towards an addiction-free relationship.


 

Surprising Stats 📊


When it comes to substance use and autism, the conversation is far from straightforward.


A recent study by the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge examined this issue using a mix of surveys and in-depth responses. Here's what they found:


Less Frequent Autistic Use: 

  • Only 16% of autistic adults reported drinking on three or more days per week, compared to 22% of their non-autistic peers. Just 4% of autistic adults reported binge-drinking, compared to 8% of non-autistic adults.


Male & Female #’s:

  • Autistic males are less likely to have ever smoked or used drugs compared to non-autistic males. 


  • There were no significant differences in substance use patterns between autistic and non-autistic females.


Behind the Numbers: The Real Story of Autism & Addiction 🗣️

Despite the lower rates of substance use overall, the qualitative data tells a different story:


Self-Medication: 

  • Autistic individuals were nearly nine times more likely to use recreational drugs to manage autism-related symptoms like sensory overload and mental focus.


  • Many also used substances to mask their autism, a practice known as camouflaging.


Mental Health: 

  • Autistic adults were over three times more likely to use substances to manage mental health symptoms, including anxiety, depression, dealing with past trauma, and suicidal thoughts.


  • While some found relief and reduced their prescribed medication doses, others faced significant risks.


High Risk: 

  • Autistic individuals are over four times more likely to report substance use related to dependence and managing suicidal thoughts.


Working Together in Neurodiverse Couples Therapy for Addiction 🤔


Here are five key insights and steps to support your relationship:


Recognize the Overlap 🔀: 

Understand that autistic partners may use substances to cope with sensory overload, social anxiety, or other challenges.


Acknowledge this unique interplay between autism and addiction, how it shows up in your relationship, and break the shame cycle which is based on misunderstanding. Personalized Treatment Plans 📝: 

Develop both individual and couples treatment plans that consider the specific needs of the autistic and allistic partners. This may include sensory-friendly environments and transparent addiction recovery plans.

Developing Shared Language 💬: 

For neurodiverse couples dealing with addiction, creating a shared language is crucial. This includes practicing "recovery check-in’s" where partners discuss their progress and setbacks. It's important to differentiate between a slip (a single instance of substance use) and a relapse (a return to previous patterns of substance use).


By fostering clear communication, couples can address feelings of shame and vulnerability openly, which helps in supporting each other through recovery.


Professional Support 🩺: 

Work with our therapists who are experienced in both autism and addiction. Specialized strategies tailored to neurodiverse couples can be more effective.


Build a Support Network 👥: 

When appropriate, engage family and friends in the treatment process. Their support creates a stable environment crucial for recovery.


Alternative Coping Mechanisms 🌟: 

Encourage healthy coping mechanisms, such as hobbies or physical activities, that provide relief without substance use.


Stay Connected 💬

We're here to help you navigate the complexities of neurodiverse relationships. If you have any questions or need support, don't hesitate to reach out.


Let's continue to learn and grow together!


 

Harry

Dr. Harry Motro, LMFT, Clinical Director

Founder Neurodiverse Couples Counseling Center


 

 

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Think You Might be on the Autism Spectrum?


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