Autistic people and the social model of addiction

For the better part of a century now, addiction has been treated largely as a matter of criminal justice, with some focus on medical treatment. Unfortunately this approach leaves a considerable amount out of the discussion. Addiction is a complex matter, with a lot of it coming down to socio-economic issues. As an Autistic addict, I am keenly aware of the social issues that contributed to my addiction, and that is what I hope to discuss in this post.

Why do people become addicted to things? Scientifically, it is because certain activities provide a reward response in the brain, and essentially this is what people become addicted to. The development of that addiction, in my opinion, tends to be dictated by a set of falling dominoes that create an environment for such a thing to happen.

The first point to consider is this; I have never met an addict who was not struggling with some kind of mental health concern, typically it is trauma related. Okay, honestly? It’s always trauma related (in my experience). So we have to think about the environment that traumatised the individual. We know that certain groups face more challenges when it comes to meeting the needs of themselves and their children.

This is often painted as a moral failing, but truthfully it is a systemic failure on the part of a society that demonises and punishes people for living in poverty, after putting people into poverty in the first place. Even now, in 2021, huge swathes of the population rely on food banks and other social welfare to survive. Could this problem be mitigated by the system? Absolutely. Sadly, the people in charge of that system tend not to do anything about that.

We also have to consider that for Autistic people, they are much more likely to experience violence and bullying at the hands of their peers and family. Continuous mistreatment by peers and family members can create a perfect storm for the development of trauma related mental health concerns, and subsequent dependence on addictive behaviours.

Autistic people live in a social context that forever tells them that who they are is wrong. For me this amounted to wishing that I could exchange my social identity for one that could better assimilate. That new identity was one of a drug user, a person who regularly went out partying, and revelled in the hedonism of the culture he was trying to assimilate into. However, this soon was not enough.

To keep my mental health at bay, I needed access to appropriate treatment for my mental health concerns. Unfortunately, Autistic people have considerably less access to mental health services because of the prevailing belief that mental health issues are “part of the territory” of autism. This is obviously a mistruth, but it is a prevalent belief.

Without access to mental health services, my substance use began to spiral as I sought stronger and stronger relief from my suffering.

This leads neatly into the next part of the social context of addiction; crisis-driven intervention.

Western society in particular, will only intervene and provide support when a person is deep in crisis. For Autistic people this can mean that we are ignored for years, because we don’t present like a neurotypical person when in crisis. These types of interventions literally kill people, and I suspect that if more effort was made to identify Autistic addicts before they died, this particular intersection would be discussed a lot more.

We also have to consider that society as a whole is not designed for Autistic people. Even the simplest of tasks can lead to burnout and anxiety, driving people towards emotional outlets that could ultimately lead to addiction.

Autistic people are a socially vulnerable group, not because of a lack of social skills, but because of a system that is not only not designed for us, but actively penalises us for being Autistic. Until that system is fixed, Autistic people will forever be at risk of trauma and subsequent addiction issues.

Is it any wonder we get “hooked” on things that feel rewarding when society is doing its best to oppress us?

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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