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Autistic Traits Linked to Alcoholism

Update Date: May 02, 2014 06:14 PM EDT

Autism can increase a person's risk of alcoholism. New research reveals that young adults with autistic tendencies are more likely than their peers to develop alcohol problems.

While young adults with autistic traits are less likely to social or binge drink, new research reveals they're more likely to grow dependent if they drink.

Researchers noted that the latest study didn't evaluate people with autism. They said the study was meant to study whether autistic traits like difficulties with social-interaction, social challenges and a predisposition to engage in repetitive behaviors, increase a person's risk for alcohol and other addiction problems.

"Drinking to intoxication is a social activity that is more likely to occur in a group," said first author Duneesha De Alwis, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry. "People with autistic traits can be socially withdrawn, so drinking with peers is less likely. But if they do start drinking, even alone, they tend to repeat that behavior, which puts them at increased risk for alcohol dependence."

The latest study involved 3,080 Australian twins. Researchers assessed participants' responses in interviews and surveys to find symptoms related to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder like inattention, difficulty concentrating or always being "on the go." Researchers also looked for traits associated with autism disorders.

"There seems to be a strong genetic overlap between ADHD and autism," De Alwis said. "And it's very common for people with ADHD to have autistic traits. These individuals may not have an autism spectrum disorder, but they typically score high on measurements of autistic traits."

The study revealed that people with more ADHD symptoms or autistic traits were more likely to abuse alcohol. Furthermore, they were also more likely to smoke cigarettes and use marijuana.

The study revealed that 39 percent of people with six or more autistic traits had used marijuana more than 10 times in their lives.

"That was a surprise," said De Alwis. "We expected they would be less likely to use marijuana because people at greatest risk for autism spectrum disorders often are reluctant to take risks and typically take steps to avoid harm."

While people with ADHD were more likely to engage in social drinking and drink till intoxication, the study revealed those with autistic traits were less likely to do either. However, drinking at all significantly raised their risk of alcohol dependence.

"Binge drinking, for example, might happen in a very developmentally limited fashion," she said. "People are most likely to binge drink during college. Then they mature and go on with life. Someone who is more socially withdrawn may not engage in that sort of drinking, but he or she may have an escalating pattern of drinking that leads to alcoholism."

"It could be that people with just a few autistic traits have an increased risk of substance-abuse problems, while those with more traits are somehow protected," Agrawal concluded. "For this study, we clumped all of these symptoms together. In future research, we want to look at how individual traits-like repetitive behaviors or being withdrawn socially-may influence risk. It could be that some traits related to autism are protective, while others elevate the risk for alcohol and substance-abuse problems."

The findings were published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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