Is there a correlation between ADHD, Autism and Addiction?

The connection between neurodiversity, mental health disorders, and addiction has been a topic of interest in research and clinical practice. While it is crucial to avoid confusing correlation with causation, research has suggested that individuals with ADHD and autism may be at an increased risk of addiction.

The increased risk of addiction among individuals with ADHD and autism can link to various factors. Social or workplace challenges and difficulties with impulsivity are common traits in these conditions, making individuals more vulnerable to addictive behaviours. People with ADHD often possess an “interest-focused” brain, prioritising short-term gratification over long-term consequences. This inclination can lead them to pursue immediate highs despite the potential adverse outcomes associated with addiction. These behaviours can also reflect in an individual’s work patterns, and they may face challenges in completing tasks that don’t provide instant gratification or hold their interest.

Underlying factors that connect ADHD, autism, and addiction can differ for each individual. However, the associated social and workplace challenges can be a significant factor in the risk of addiction. Neurodiverse individuals often struggle to establish meaningful social connections, especially at work, leaving them susceptible to addictive behaviours. The substance or focus of the addiction may serve as a substitute for lacking social attachment or to relax and ease into social events at work.

Impulse control and executive functioning deficits can also contribute to addiction in individuals with ADHD or autism. The difficulty in pausing and reflecting before succumbing to addictive behaviours or binge cycles can stem from challenges in self-regulation. Enhancing executive functioning skills through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help individuals recognise patterns, track consumption, and develop strategies to address addictive behaviours.

What are the underlying factors that link Mental Health Conditions and Addiction?

Several underlying factors may contribute to the development of mental health conditions and subsequent addiction. Attachment trauma, multigenerational trauma, a family history of addiction, and social isolation or exclusion can all play a role. Attachment trauma is when the vital bonding process between a child and their primary carer is disrupted. That trauma might be overt abuse or neglect, or it could be more subtle—a caregiver’s lack of compassion or reaction. Whereas, multigenerational trauma refers to trauma that is passed from trauma survivors to their descendants.

Sometimes, individuals may use self-medication to cope with their emotional challenges, leading to addictive tendencies. Neurochemical imbalances from intersecting conditions can contribute to dysregulation and greater susceptibility to addictive behaviours.

What is the influence of Mental Health Conditions on Addiction? 

Mental health disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, Anxiety, Depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder, can impact the probability of addiction. These conditions often stem from underlying emotional difficulties, and addictive behaviours may arise as coping mechanisms.

For instance, individuals who suffer from borderline personality disorder may use substances to manage emotional mood swings, while those with anxiety may turn to addictive habits to temporarily soothe, distract or calm their minds.

Addiction and mental health conditions are connected and treating them holistically is vital. A harm reduction approach, setting SMART goals, and implementing gradual, achievable changes are essential. It should be acknowledged that addiction tends to be a symptom of underlying mental health conditions, and progress is difficult without addressing both the cause and effect.

Individuals dealing with addiction while also experiencing other mental health conditions require a comprehensive and integrated treatment approach. Establishing healthy routines, and focusing on sleep and mental health, forms a solid foundation for recovery.

These are a few strategies and processes that I would recommend:

a) Holistic Treatment: Treat addiction and mental health conditions as interconnected issues simultaneously.


b) Harm Reduction: This is an approach which focuses on gradual progress rather than immediate sobriety. Setting SMART goals tailored to the individual’s needs and circumstances can be beneficial.


c) Establishing Routines:A structured and healthy routine is important, particularly with sleep, healthy habits, and overcoming triggers, to provide stability and support.


d) Professional Support: Seeking professional assistance from therapists or counsellors is a brave and strong step towards improving the situation. Many resources and support groups are available now; if you are seeking help for yourself or a loved one, caba has shared a list of trusted websites and organisationswith accurate advice.


What can employers do to support their employees with mental health disorders and addiction? 

If you have an employee who’s struggling with addiction or mental health, you may be wondering how to help them. Employers may want to share resources and tools for them to overcome their addiction like offering counselling or talking to a professional. While these may be important to discuss later, starting off by encouraging open communication and building trust. Being part of someone’s support network is incredibly brave and thoughtful, but we understand this can have challenging effects on your own health. Hence, here are a few tips to consider when supporting your employees with an addiction or mental health issue:

  1. Educate managers:Educate employees about addiction and mental health disorders. This will help them understand the signs and symptoms as well as how to support someone struggling with addiction.
  2. Rehearse:It can be helpful to rehearse your main questions or tone when responding to difficult answers. It’s best to avoid trying to predict what your employee will say or what the conversation’s outcome will be.
  3. Ask open questions:When rehearsing, think of open questions that you can ask about their wellbeing and addiction. These questions can help your employees feel considered and supported.
  4. Be mindful: Supporting someone with an addiction or a mental health issues may be stressful, so practising body language or grounding techniques can help manage stress response for everyone involved.

While the relationship between ADHD, autism, mental health disorders, and addiction is complex, it is essential to recognise the potential connections and risks involved. Understanding the underlying factors and addressing co-occurring conditions holistically can significantly contribute to the successful treatment and recovery of individuals struggling with addiction. By adopting integrated approaches that acknowledge the interplay between neurodiversity, mental health, and addiction, we can provide more effective support and improve outcomes for those affected.

Dr Stefan Walters
Dr Stefan Walters
Psychological therapist at Caba

Dr Stefan Walters is a psychological therapist who specialises in issues of attachment and intimacy, complex traumatic stress and addiction/compulsivity, issues that are often rooted in unresolved childhood trauma. He has been featured on the BBC and published worldwide, with a wealth of experience across performance issues, relationship challenges, compulsivity and addictions, and personal development.