January 24, 2022

Autistic Traits Found in 20% of Young Adults Seeking Addiction Treatment

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Researchers say addiction programs should screen for autism symptoms so patients can receive adequate, integrated treatment.

The Bottom Line

A significant proportion of young adults seeking outpatient treatment for substance use disorder (SUD) show signs of clinically elevated autistic traits, highlighting the need for addiction treatment programs to screen for autism symptoms and develop integrated treatment protocols.  


Autistic people frequently struggle to regulate emotion and experience challenges with social communication. Psychiatric comorbidities, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, and sleep-wake disorders are common among those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Less is known about the prevalence of SUD among individuals with ASD.

Most SUD treatment programs do not routinely screen for developmental disabilities such as autism. When facilities underrecognize or fail to identify these cases, the patients may not receive adequate treatment.

Study Objective

Examine the prevalence and clinical characteristics associated with prominent ASD traits in young people seeking treatment for addiction.

The Details

Researchers conducted a retrospective medical chart review of intake assessments of 69 young adults, ages 14 to 26, at an outpatient SUD psychiatry clinic. They examined the prevalence of ASD symptoms in this sample, which was measured through the parent-reported Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS-2). They also compared patients with elevated symptoms on the SRS-2 to those with low symptoms on measures relating to substance use and mental health.


Approximately 20% of young adults seeking outpatient treatment for SUD were found to have clinically elevated ASD traits, as reported by their parents. Those in the group with elevated ASD traits were more likely to have a severe addiction, particularly stimulant and opioid use disorders, and more likely to have used alcohol in the past week.

Because of the significant challenges of using traditional SUD psychotherapy interventions for people with elevated autistic traits, more research is needed on effective treatment options for this population.

Pull Quote

“Given the high rates of overdose in those with opioid use disorders and the disturbing trend of increasing rates of OUDs in young people more recently, addressing ASD as a potential risk factor for increased opioid use disorder is necessary.”


McKowen J, Woodward D, Yule AM, DiSalvo M, Rao V, Greenbaum J, Joshi G, Wilens TE (2021). “Characterizing autistic traits in treatment‐seeking young adults with substance use disorders.” The American Journal on Addictions.

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About the Author

David Limm

David Limm is the digital editor of HealthCity.

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