Autism and ADHD are often reported to have vastly different relationships with regard to the smoking of cigarettes. Research suggests that among Autistic people, we see a reduced rate of smoking, while ADHDers generally report smoking more frequently (nearly half reported daily smoking by age 17). I believe, however, that a serious oversight has occurred in research regarding the co-existence of both Autistic and ADHD identities in individuals (also known as AuDHD).
I had previously highlighted that around 37% of Autistic respondents to a Twitter survey reported current or historical smoking. I discussed that this may be because Autistic people use smoking as a stim and for sensory breaks, but when we consider the overlap between autism and ADHD (estimated to be 50-70%) we start to see more reasons for why there may be increased smoking of tobacco between neurodivergent people.
ADHDers often smoke as a way to self-medicate (nicotine is a stimulant) or due to impulsivity (see this study). When we combine ADHD and Autism, we combine the risk factors for smoking cigarettes. Not only do AuDHDers need a reason to escape environments or use smoking as a stim, the nicotine helps to regulate attention.
So, when we consider research that finds Autistic people to have a lower than average prevalence of tobacco smoking, I have to question whether or not the sample was biased. At least half, if not more Autistic people are also ADHD, and therefore should be subject to the sake prevalence and risk factors for smoking as those assumed to only be ADHD.
Smoking rates are an important thing to consider in neurodivergent communities, given their link to early mortality. Autistic people face a mortality risk suggested to be 51% higher than the general population with Autistic people living an average of 16 years less than non-Autistic people. Increased rates of smoking in AuDHD demographics almost inevitably contribute to our shorter than average life span.
This raises important questions for cessation and maintenance of abstinence from tobacco in nicotine dependent AuDHDers. Substance use services are notoriously ill equipped to work with neurodivergent people; the same could be said of smoking cessation services. Most of which are run out of pharmacies in the UK with no reference to neurodivergence in NICE guidance.
As with most cases of chemical dependency and addiction, neurodivergent people are forced to find their own route to abstinence or harm reduction. This matter only becomes more complicated with the co-occurrence of multiple neurodivergent identities.
AuDHD people are often ignored in research, probably due to the complicated nature of identifying exact co-occurrence rates in a world where diagnostic criteria miss the identification of many. When we consider research into AuDHD substance use, we can appreciate that it is not a simple affair and that it would be a significant undertaking to obtain truly accurate figures.
Regardless, Autistic and ADHD people deserve a shift in research priorities, away from causative factors and genetics, towards meaningful insights into our quality of life and longevity.
Nothing will shorten our lives more than ignoring the issues that shorten our lives.