Autistic individuals with mental health problems are more likely to self-medicate

Author: Ed Brown
Date: July 2, 2021

Despite autistic adolescents and adults being less likely to use reactional drugs, those who do are more likely to self-medicate, finds research from the University of Cambridge.

Content warning: This article briefly mentions suicidal ideation.

The findings of the study conducted by the Autism Research Centre found that autistic adults were nearly nine times more likely to report that they use recreational drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines, to manage unwanted behaviours and feelings, including those related to their neurodiversity.

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“Our current systems are still not meeting [the] mark”

Drugs were reportedly being used to reduce sensory overload and to seemingly control their behaviours related to their neurodiversity, among other reasons. Previous research has shown that this form of behaviour management, known as camouflaging, has been linked to emotional exhaustion, worse mental health outcomes, and even increased risk of suicide among autistic adults.

Autistic individuals were also three times more likely to respond that they were using substances to manage feelings of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Many participants explicitly noting that they were using drugs for self-medication.

On the other hand, Autistic adults were less likely than their non-autistic peers to use substances overall. Only 16% of autistic adults reported drinking three or more days a week than 22% of non-autistic adults. And only 4% of autistic adults said they binge drink compared to 8% of non-autistic adults.

Elizabeth Weir, the lead author of the study, said of the findings: “It is evident that the current systems of health and social care support are not meeting the needs of many autistic teenagers and adults.”

“No one should feel that they need to self-medicate for these issues without guidance from a healthcare professional.”

“Identifying new forms of effective support is urgent considering the complex associations between substance use, mental health, and behaviour management – particularly as camouflaging and compensating behaviours are associated with suicide risk among autistic individuals.”

From: Mental Health Today. Read more: