Many teens and young adults who seek treatment for a substance use disorder (SUD) exhibit previously unidentified traits characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a new study.

James McKowen and colleagues asked parents of 69 adolescents or young adults who were visiting a SUD clinic for the first time to evaluate their children using the Social Responsiveness Scale-2 (SRS-2). This form is designed to measure social awareness, social cognition (thinking about other people and interactions with them), social communication, social motivation, and restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. It has been shown to reliably identify the presence and severity of social impairment in individuals with ASD, and to distinguish autism from other disorders.

“Usually, studies of substance use disorder in autism are done in those with an autism diagnosis already,” McKowen says. “We have looked at this question from the other side, asking how many people with substance use disorder have autism.”

The researchers found that 20% of the teens and young adults had elevated scores on the SRS-2. They say the findings highlight the importance of assessing patients in a SUD treatment setting for autistic traits.

For parents of children with a SUD, McKowen adds, “the big takeaway is that if you suspect that your child may have an autism spectrum issue or if school personnel have suggested that your child may have autistic traits, you should certainly get that assessed, and let your clinicians know whether your child has had a prior diagnosis
of ASD.”

“Characterizing autistic traits in treatment-seeking young adults with substance use disorders,” James McKowen, Diana Woodward, Amy M. Yule, Maura DiSalvo, Vinod Rao, Julia Greenbaum, Gagan Joshi, and Timothy E. Wilens, American Journal on Addictions, December 2021 (online). Address: James McKowen, Clinical and Research Programs in Pediatric Psychopharmacology and Adult ADHD, Massachusetts General Hospital, 15 Parkman St., Wang Bldg., Suite 805, Boston, MA 02114, [email protected] harvard.edu.

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“Undiagnosed autistic traits common among youths with substance use disorders, study finds,” news release, Massachusetts General Hospital, January 24, 2022.

This article originally appeared in Autism Research Review International, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2022