Sensory issues may play a role in elevated levels of substance abuse in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), according to a new study from the Netherlands.

Frank van den Boogert and colleagues note, “ASD is considered to be a risk factor for substance abuse, with six times higher risk of substance abuse in persons with ASD in comparison with persons without autistic traits.” However, they say, “Although the association between autism spectrum disorder and substance use has been extensively researched, this is not the case for the possible association between sensory processing difficulties and substance use.”

The researchers asked 101 adults with ASD to fill out two questionnaires, the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile and the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test – Consumption. They divided participants into four sensory categories: sensory seeking, sensory sensitivity, sensory avoiding, and low registration (reflecting a high sensory threshold and low levels of responding). They also broke participants into three categories: non-drinkers, non-hazardous drinkers, and hazardous drinkers.

The researchers report that “sensory processing difficulties are associated with alcohol use in adults with ASD.” Drinkers reported higher levels of low registration, non-hazardous drinkers reported higher levels of sensory sensitivity, and hazardous drinkers reported higher levels of sensory seeking in comparison with non-drinkers.

The researchers say, “Substance abuse in ASD might in part be explained by sensory processing difficulties.” They add, “Whether alcohol is used as ‘self-medication’ or is associated with other neurobiological vulnerabilities needs further investigation in larger follow-up studies.”

“Sensory processing and alcohol use in adults with autism spectrum disorder,” Frank van den Boogert, Bram Sizoo, Yvonne H.A. Bouman, Witte J.G. Hoogendijk, and Sabine J. Roza, Alcohol, August 19, 2023 (free online). Address: Sabine J. Roza, Department of Psychiatry, Erasmus MC, Dr. Molewaterplein 40, 3015 GD, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, s.roza@erasmusmc.nl

It appeared in Autism Research Review International, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2019

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