Autism: How Alcohol Affects Us and Benefits of Giving it up

Autism: How Alcohol Affects Us and Benefits of Giving it up


When researching the relationship between alcohol and autism/Asperger’s, the results are very interesting.  It seems that nearly all autistics/Aspies either fall on one extreme or the other.  On the one hand they totally abstain from drinking alcohol and never have a drink (or quite similarly, some that will only drink a few times a year).  To others that drink excessively (many stating they’re alcoholics), and use alcohol to numb the affects of autism/Aspergers.  Enabling them to live a more normal life.  

It is well understood that our autism causes us to have a strong sensitivity to bright light, touch, taste, smell and loud noises.  But do we have this same type sensitivity to drugs such as alcohol, medication and caffeine? Although there is anecdotal evidence in regards to Autistics having a lower tolerance to alcohol (including my own experiences).  There is a lack of scientific evidence in this area, to either confirm or refute this theory.  There is however some evidence that suggests that Autistics/Aspies having a very sensitive nervous system.  So much so that when administering some medications it is recommended that lower doses are given.

Survey Results of Autistics/Aspies that Drink Alcohol

I conducted a twitter poll to see how often Autisitics/Apsies drink alcohol and the results were quite surprising.  28 people answered.  The results are below:

To everyone with high functioning autism/Asperger’s.  How often do you have alcoholic drinks?

Few times a year39.3%
Once or twice per week10.7%
Most days14.3%

This shows that 74% of respondents either don’t drink alcohol, at all or only a few times per year.  Which is an incredibly high percentage.

Online Forum Results of Autistics/Aspies that Drink Alcohol

When looking at past online forums based around the subject of Autistics/Aspies drinking alcohol  the results were very interesting.

On Wrong Planet the question was asked  “Anyone know much on the effects of alcohol on someone under the spectrum?”  Which had 57 responses.  By going through these posts and looking for common themes I was able to tally up the results which are shown below:

AffectAmount of respondents confirming this
Lower tolerance to alcohol6
Same tolerance to alcohol as none autistic 3
Not sure if alcohol affected them more due to autism/Aspergers3
Alcohol causes anxiety7
Alcohol causes a meltdown1
Doesn’t drink alcohol at all or very rarely13
Drinks regularly but not excessively3
Drinks excessively or self admitted alcoholic12

Many people responded in different ways, and most did not answer the question directly, so these results do not mean that out of 57 respondents this is the amount that agreed or disagreed.  

It was quite interesting that 6 people felt that had a lower tolerance to alcohol.  But what was more revealing was that 13 respondents did not drink alcohol at all or very rarely and 12 drank excessively or admitted to being an alcoholic.  Quite closely matching the twitter poll results that a very large percentage of Autistics/Aspies don’t drink.  Many of those that do , drink excessively.  With not many people in between.  Other noticeable comments included the fact that drinking alcohol increased anxiety or even caused meltdowns.

Are Autistics/Aspies More Sensitive to Alcohol?

From the Wrong Planet results above, it’s shown that a number of Autistics/Aspies feel that they are more sensitive to alcohol (I feel that I am too).  I tried to research this topic but, surprisingly, no scientific results are available in this area.  What I did find was some evidence that the central nervous system for Autistics/Aspies  is more sensitive to medication.  Three sources of this evidence are below:

  • Autism Help discusses various medications for helping with autism.  But cautions that the nervous system for many people with autism is very sensitive.  Due to this it recommends giving Autistics a lower dose of medication.  Plus people with autism/Aspergers may not respond to medication in the same way as other children. 
  • Similarly the Interactive Autism Network discusses how drugs can help Autistics with anxiety.  Here Dr Vasa (director of education and training, and associate professor of psychiatry) discussed how Autistics/Aspies are very vulnerable to the side effects of anxiety medications and recommends giving lower and slower doses.
  • Dr. Temple Grandin also states that people with autism have a very sensitive central nervous system and some people with autism require much lower doses in relation to antidepressants.

With this in mind there could be a link showing that some Autistics/Aspies have a lower tolerance to alcohol than the rest of the population.  It will be interesting to see if any studies will confirm this in future years.

Why Some Autistics/Aspies Drink Alcohol Excessively

It was once thought that being Autistic/Aspie didn’t affect a person’s addictive tendancies.  But a recent large and in depth study conducted in Sweden shows that Autistics/Aspies (without intellectual disabilities or ADHD) were twice as likely to have substance use-related problems.  It became even higher if a person is autistic and ADHD.

When looking at people’s responses as to why they drank alcohol excessively in forums and blogs, there seemed to be many common reasons. Addiction was one common thread.  But other reasons include: 

  • To fit in
  • Reduce sensory overload
  • Tolerate other people more
  • Helps with distress and trauma
  • Being carefree, relaxed and more outgoing
  • Talk to people easier
  • Helps to relax
  • Helps with boredom

How Alcohol Affects Me

I’ve always been sensitive to alcohol, but didn’t relate this to autism, as I had a late diagnosis (in my mid thirties).  

In my early twenties I would get drunk much more quickly than my friends.  Even when I drank a few nights a week, I still didn’t build up a tolerance.  My friends could easily drink three times the amount I managed.

When I drank alcohol I didn’t enjoy it a great deal.  I only had the being merry/happy part of being drunk (that numbs our senses and stops our worrying) for short periods of time.  Maybe half an hour or so.  Before I got the to the point where: 

  • I knew I would get too drunk (and I wouldn’t be able to stop it, as i’d already drank too much)
  • Slurring 
  • Getting words mixed up. 

Then, more often than not, the worse sides of being drunk such as: the room spinning and not being able to walk straight.

From the age of 22 I only drank a few times a year.  Then I got to the stage where I totally gave up alcohol, six years ago. 

Difficulties of Giving Up Alcohol

Giving up alcohol can be tough.  Some of the negatives can be:

  • Friends/others seeing us as being odd.  Especially if they are all drinking alcohol but you order soft drinks.
  • Missing the taste.  But there are some good non alcohol versions now available.
  • Being excluded from social events such as work parties or going to the pub after work.
  • If drinking soft drinks, as an alternative, they are either high in sugar or high in sweeteners (which is not too good for our health).
  • Adds to the list of our peculiarities.  Which makes us stand out even more for being different to everyone else.

Benefits of Giving up Alcohol

The are a vast number of benefits of giving up alcohol or drinking it sparsely.  Such as:

  • Immense health benefits – as too much drinking can damage organs such as the liver and even increase the chance of cancer and heart attacks.
  • Increased life expectancy
  • Saving money
  • Healthier weight
  • Better skin
  • Improve sleep

But every person is different and the benefits to each person, have to be weighed up individually.  Drinking alcohol gives Autistics/Aspies a unique benefit of reducing sensory overload and (depending on the person) and a method of finally fitting in more socially with friends.  So drinking a bit more regularly, for some Autistics/Aspies, might be worth  it on balance.  But never to the point of being an alcoholic.

Final thoughts

I am very much an all of nothing kind of person.  Basically if I decide to give something up, I’ll quit completely rather than try to reduce my intake.  I gave up alcohol several years ago and caffeine a few years ago and never looked back.  I even smoked cigarette for a few years in my late teens and quit them completely too.

Alcohol and social drinking is a massive part of many people’s lives.  It’s probably their biggest highlight, and the thing they look forward to the most.  A means of celebrating all of life’s most important events.  Such as marriages, Christmases, a New Years or births.  To them someone abstaining from alcohol seems alien and strange. I can see their argument.  

Society is changing though and more and more people are giving up or deciding to never even try alcohol.  Especially the younger generation (where studies have shown almost 30% of 16-24 year old don’t drink alcohol in England) .  Beer companies realise this and many now offer alcohol free versions such as Budweiser, Heineken and Carlsberg.  So hopefully those of us that don’t drink anymore will become more accepted over time.

For those of us that drink excessively I can understand why.  There are times when I wish I could stop overthinking things, fit in better at social events or reduce sensory overload (especially in social settings).  For me it’s not worth the negatives, but for others the balance falls the other way.


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