Addiction and Asperger’s Syndrome
When chemical dependency develops in those who have Asperger’s syndrome, addiction specialists must create specialized programs that fully address Asperger’s symptoms even as comprehensive addiction treatment is provided. The good news is that people with Asperger’s syndrome are normally high functioning, especially if they were diagnosed at a young age and provided with at least some developmental therapy. In general, men and women with Asperger’s are perfectly capable of overcoming their substance abuse challenges, despite their unique perspectives and patterns of behavior.
What Is Addiction and Asperger’s Syndrome?
People with Asperger’s syndrome suffer social impairments that can range from mild to severe. Communication can be taxing or problematic in many contexts, and their capacity to make emotional connections or interpret body language or verbal signaling is often underdeveloped.
They are also prone to repetitive behaviors and routines, and their interests and activities tend to be limited in range and bounded by self-imposed restrictions. Because of personal preference and their difficulties in relating to others, people with Asperger’s syndrome tend to spend significant amounts of time alone, which often leads to them incorrectly being identified as ‘shy’ or ‘introverted.’
As a developmental disorder, Asperger’s first manifests during childhood but will continue into adolescence and adulthood. While therapy can help a person with Asperger’s learn to function more effectively, there is no cure for this condition.
Unsurprisingly, some people with Asperger’s syndrome turn to drugs and alcohol in adolescence and adulthood, seeking a way to escape from their frustrations and disappointments. Their tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors may work against them when they begin using drugs and alcohol, and unfortunately many people with Asperger’s are reluctant to ask for help when they’re struggling with personal or health-related issues.
Facts and Statistics
Asperger’s syndrome is a term used to describe a certain constellation of physical, psychological, and behavioral traits, but the psychiatric profession no longer recognizes it as a separate diagnosis. In the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Asperger’s was eliminated as a distinct condition, with its symptoms being absorbed into the autism spectrum disorder category.
According to the latest estimates from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one out of every 59 children in the United States has some type of autism spectrum disorder. It is not known with precision how many show symptoms consistent with Asperger’s syndrome, which is located on the mild end of the spectrum. But some experts believe that up to half of all Asperger’s cases remain undiagnosed, primarily because parents and adults who have it don’t recognize it as a clinically identifiable, or treatable, disorder.
In 2017, approximately 18.7 million adult Americans had a drug or alcohol abuse disorder. In one recent study, it was found that having traits associated with Asperger’s or an autism spectrum disorder increased the risk of developing a substance use disorder by about two-thirds, revealing that some people with Asperger’s syndrome will in fact turn to drugs and alcohol to help cope with troubling developmental and behavioral symptoms.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Addiction and Asperger’s Syndrome
Asperger’s syndrome will reveal its presence through four different categories of symptoms: cognitive, social/interpersonal, speech and language, and physical.
People with Asperger’s are all different, and most will exhibit only some of the symptoms associated with the disorder. In fact, their symptoms may be limited to just one or two of the four categories, with their patterns of development falling well within the range of normal in the others.
The symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome may include:
- Superior capacity for memorization
- A technical or factual orientation during learning
- Difficulties comprehending abstract information
- Obsessiveness over details, many of which seem inconsequential
- Troubles focusing on topics that don’t fit within the person’s narrow band of interests
- Difficulties in making friendships
- Social isolation (and a preference for it)
- Discomfort with eye contact
- Lack of a sense of humor
- Bluntness, lack of diplomacy
- Poor emotional control, prone to outbursts that seem out of proportion to the situation
- Tendency to talk only about oneself
- Fascination with topics others find boring
- Interpreting the statements of others literally, missing irony, sarcasm, or metaphor
Speech and language symptoms
- Robotic speaking style, marked by a lack of verbal inflection
- Repetitive speech (repeating the same ideas or coming back to the same themes again and again)
- Difficulties using or comprehending language in a social context
- Speaking too loudly or out of turn
- Delays in the development of fine motor skills
- Awkwardness or lack of coordination in movements
- High sensitivity to noises, odors, or certain food textures
- Weakness and lack of physical strength
To be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a person must report chronic social impairment, have a history of repetitive behaviors and demonstrate a narrow range of interests, with no accompanying delays in language or cognitive development to help explain the anomalies. Autism spectrum disorders are usually diagnosed between the ages of four and 11, but can be diagnosed in adulthood if distinctive symptoms are on display.
In the case of addiction, a person must be carefully evaluated by a clinician or addiction specialist, to see if their behavior conforms with the standards for a substance use disorder diagnosis. Symptoms of chemical dependency may include cravings for the substance of choice, growing tolerance for substances that leads to steadily increasing usage, withdrawal symptoms when the person tries to stop using drugs or alcohol, and a range of negative life consequences (personal, professional, social, financial, etc.) that do not lead to sobriety despite their serious and disruptive nature.
Dangers of Overdose
People with substance use issues are at grave risk for overdose if they don’t seek treatment, based on the pattern of escalating consumption that so often accompanies the development of addiction.
In 2017, an estimated 72,000 people died from the effects of a drug overdose. Another 2,200 succumbed to the effects of alcohol poisoning, which most often occurs as a result of uncontrolled binge drinking. Signs of drug overdose and alcohol poisoning may include extreme drowsiness, mental confusion, nausea and vomiting, coordination and movement problems, respiratory distress, dangerously low heart rate, and other symptoms that could indicate a person is heavily intoxicated and under severe physical distress.
When an overdose or case of alcohol poisoning in suspected, even a few minutes delay could make the difference between life and death. At the first sign of trouble emergency assistance should be summoned immediately, before the person lapses into unconsciousness.
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Addiction and Asperger’s Syndrome Causes and Risk Factors
Brain scans and MRIs have revealed anomalies in the brains of individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, specifically in the frontal and temporal lobes. This may be caused by genetics, environmental exposures (particularly during the pre-natal period), or both, but differences in brain function and structure are universal in those who exhibit symptoms consistent with Asperger’s syndrome.
Other known risk factors for Asperger’s syndrome include:
- Genetics. According the latest research, inherited factors may account for up to 83 percent of the risk for an autism spectrum disorder.
- Being male. Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
- Having certain medical conditions. The list of disorders associated with an increased risk for an autism spectrum disorder include epilepsy, Rett syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Tourette syndrome, and Fragile X syndrome.
- Being born to older parents. A child’s risk of being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome rises by 24 percent if their father is older than 35 and 34 percent if their mother is above that age.
- Birth and pre-birth complications. Premature birth and fetal exposures to toxic chemicals and certain pharmaceutical drugs (like antipsychotics and mood stabilizers) can increase the risks for autism spectrum disorders.
Having symptoms related to Asperger’s syndrome can boost a person’s risk for substance abuse. As a further complication, co-occurring mental health disorders are frequently diagnosed in people who have an autism spectrum disorder, and all mental health conditions are associated with increased rates of substance use disorders.
Withdrawal and Detox
Before a person with a substance use disorder can receive treatment, they must first stop using drugs or alcohol entirely, despite the cravings and withdrawal symptoms that inevitably accompany the initial stages of sobriety.
To help them make it through the first seven to 10 days of this process, people should begin their recovery by enrolling in a medically-supervised detox program, offered by a licensed substance abuse rehabilitation center.
In detox, the patient’s physical and mental health symptoms will be monitored around the clock by a staff of trained medical professionals, in a clinical setting fully stocked with all necessary supplies and equipment. Depending on the nature of their addictions, medications may be provided to help ease the intensity of the withdrawal symptoms, and they will receive appropriate treatment services for any other conditions or symptoms they might experience.
Men and women with Asperger’s syndrome will have the opportunity to meet with mental health professionals during their time in detox, if they are feeling uncomfortable or overwhelmed by their circumstances. Asperger’s shouldn’t hinder the process, as long as the patient’s needs are fully acknowledged and addressed.
Studies reveal that a significant majority—ranging from 70 to 84 percent—of people with autism spectrum disorders have comorbid mental health conditions.
The list of mental and behavioral health conditions frequently diagnosed in young people or adults with Asperger’s syndrome include:
- Bipolar disorder (primarily bipolar II)
- Anxiety disorders (with social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder being most prevalent)
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
- Childhood-onset schizophrenia (COS)
According to the latest report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2017 about 18 percent of people with a mental health disorder had a co-occurring substance use condition, while nearly 45 percent of those with a substance use disorder had a comorbid mental health disorder. When Asperger’s is present that is a further complication that must be dealt with, but comprehensive addiction treatment programs can be customized to do just that.
Treatment and Prognosis for Addiction and Asperger’s Syndrome
Men and women with Asperger’s syndrome often have some social and interpersonal issues that can leave them feeling anxious when they enter drug and alcohol rehab. Consequently, recovery services will incorporate a range of interventions designed to treat the psychological, emotional, and behavioral health difficulties associated with an Asperger’s diagnosis. With carefully targeted treatment, those who have this developmental disorder can learn to better manage their symptoms, leaving them less vulnerable to relapse and other life complications that can inhibit good health and effective functioning.
Addiction recovery programs for those who have co-occurring Asperger’s will include the normal range of treatment services, including a mixture of individual, group, and family therapy, along with medications if depression, anxiety disorders, or other mental health conditions have been diagnosed. Holistic healing practices, diet and nutritional therapy, and classes that teach coping skills and relapse prevention may also be added to the recovery regimen, and if an opioid use disorder has been diagnosed maintenance medications such as methadone or buprenorphine may be administered during formal treatment as well.
Residential drug and alcohol treatment centers offer adaptable inpatient and intensive outpatient rehab programs (along with follow-up aftercare programs) that can be customized to fit the specific needs of each patient with a substance use disorder, including those who have Asperger’s syndrome. Recovery from addiction is always challenging, but in the capable hands of trained professionals people struggling with substance abuse can find lasting relief and hope for a much safer and happier future.