Mapping the Connection Between Autism and Alcohol Abuse

“It felt like everyone had been given an instruction manual except me”

“I used to look at the kids playing and think, How do they know what to do?”

“Drinking made me feel normal.”

“It felt like everyone had been given an instruction manual except me.”

These are all sentences that I have heard in AA meetings. When I first heard people saying this sort of thing I nodded fervently.

Yes! That’s me! I relate! HELLO! I RELATE!

Five years after I got sober, I discovered I am Autistic. Since then I’m learning a lot about what that means. I’ve learned that Autism often runs in families, and have realized that my parents could be Autistic too. My mum relates a lot to my experience — struggling in relationships, needing a lot of time alone — and is open to the possibility. My dad was an even more classic case with many of the same traits as me, as well as many more.

When we do socialize, all of us love drinking.


Being with people + being Autistic = drinking?

After I got sober I found it sad that our family events had always been alcohol-fueled. Why did we need to drink in order to connect to each other? I longed to have been from a teetotal conscientious sort of family who sat and read together in the evenings. I wished I had been born a hundred years earlier when the pace of life was slower and women sat around all day sewing in fancy dress. (Okay, I would probably have been a servant, but stop ruining my fantasy.)

Instead, my home life consisted of people who wanted to do their own thing to decompress from the stress of work/school. Gaming, drinking or watching soaps, we all zoned out into our own thing. We had already been around people all day, now we needed time to ourselves.

Occasionally we went out for family dinners, and every time, without exception, everyone got drunk. Not out of control, but tipsy and loud. Socializing and alcohol were intrinsically linked.

By my teens, I had joined the party. What else was there to do? I genuinely had no idea. By 33 I had come to rely on booze so much to manage my social anxiety that I had to get sober. By 35 I had realized my social anxiety wasn’t going anywhere. I understood with more clarity than ever before why I had become so dependant on alcohol.

At 37 I was diagnosed as Autistic.

I am finding a lot of peace as a result of receiving this diagnosis. I can see how my parents struggled to raise a family and work and sustain relationships while experiencing issues with executive functioning, social anxiety and emotional dysregulation. I can see how the struggle played out in them because it has played out in me, too.

For a long time, I’ve suspected there is a connection between Autism and heavy drinking, but there isn’t as much research connecting the dots as you might expect. It seems an obvious relationship. Autism involves difficulty connecting with people via neurotypically approved avenues (eye contact, passing a conversational baton, keeping the chat positive/light, not interrupting, not dominating the conversation). The intimidating challenge of getting all of this right when you mostly prefer hanging out by yourself anyhow, and the many instances of getting it wrong over a lifetime causes even more anxiety about connecting. ‘Dutch Courage’ becomes even more appealing and so a vicious cycle is created.

This puts a socially anxious Autistic person in the position that if they want to connect, they feel like they have to drink alcohol. Alcohol helps to suppress social anxiety, after all. If only in the short term. This is why I drank so much of it.

Drinking, for me, as an undiagnosed Autistic person was like a miracle cure for the condition I did not even know I had. One half of lager made me feel like a ‘normal’ person, by which I had no idea, I meant a neurotypical person. Alcohol got me in the mood to go out, and then allowed me to act confident and carefree while sitting in a group of people and taking turns to talk.

Of course, I drank a lot. I love to be alone, but I am wired for connection too. Drinking helped me overcome the uncomfortable feelings that came with hanging out. It lowered my inhibitions and enabled me to join in. The problem is that alcohol works. Until it doesn’t.

I’m lucky that I stopped when I did. How many other Autistic people find themselves lost in addiction?


Autism + drinking = addiction?

It turns out there is a sizable gap in the research connecting Autism and addiction, and people are trying to fill it. SABAA is an SSA-funded project looking at the overlap between autism and addiction, which is exciting since these are my two special interests. The project aims to identify research gaps and priorities as well as to provide guidance for future work.

I am really excited to be on the steering committee and to get a better handle on where exactly the gaps are in the research. If anyone wants to know more information, to be involved or to be on the mailing list, there is the sabaa@soton.ac.uk email address and you can follow the project on Twitter at @pspsabaa, too. I will share our goals as we work out what they are, and hopefully, we can make some progress towards understanding the link between Autism and alcohol use.

And if you like my work and want to support it subscribe to my newsletter, Polite Robot, which is all about how to thrive no matter your neurology. There are free and paid subscriptions available, and my aim is to help spread awareness and move towards us all giving ourselves a flipping break.


Also, I’m starting an autistic agony aunt column and I need your most pressing questions! I promise to keep your identity anonymous and to find answers from informed professionals if I have no idea what to recommend. : ) Relationship, family, work, whatever you are struggling with, hit reply or ask your question in the comments. I will do my utmost to help you with wise and nurturing advice.

Connect with the Autism community on Twitter. If you have a question, use #ActuallyAutistic or #AskingAutistics (or both). You can also visit The Autism Self Advocacy Network and the Autistic Not Weird Facebook page and website.

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