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Teen Alcohol Abuse with Asperger's Syndrome

  • Asks ...

    My 17 year old son has Asperger's and he is now using alcohol as a way to cope with his condition in social situations. He says he tried it a few months ago on a band trip out of state and that after a couple of beers he felt so much more relaxed and able to talk to people in a normal social way that it was like the best medicine he has ever had. I have read that other people with Asperger's, adults, will also use alcohol to make it through social occasions more normally.

    Since he tried alcohol that first time my son started using it to make it through the day at school. Last week he was caught by his gym teacher while sneaking a drink in the changing room. He was suspended and we got the whole story out of him. We were so shocked at first, but now that we have heard his side of the story we can’t be angry and we understand why he would drink as he has been.

    He has been drinking almost everyday now for months. I can’t believe we never noticed at home. He really needs some emergency help for his drinking, but all the teen alcohol treatment programs we contact seem to be based on a lot of group type therapies, which I don’t think are going to be very effective for my son. Can you tell me what type of alcoholism treatment is going to work best for my son, given his Asperger's?

  • Delisted Expert Says ...

    As a former director of a teenage substance abuse treatment center, I know the problem well concerning co-occurring teenagers; those with a psychiatric diagnosis(es), such as Asperger's Syndrome, and alcohol abuse. First, I would like to commend you for identifying the problem(s) and actively seek appropriate answers/solutions for your son.

    You are correct about your son having potential difficulty in a regular substance abuse group. The programs which I have found to be most effective with co-occurring teenagers are

    1. the Seven Challenges Program http://www.sevenchallenges.com/ http://nrepp.samhsa.gov/ViewIntervention.aspx?id=159 and
    2. the Matrix Model http://www.matrixinstitute.org/ which offers assessment and free treatment for teens.

    Both the Seven Challenges Program and the Matrix Model can be offered in individual sessions as was offered in an intensive outpatient program. The ideal therapeutic intervention for co-occurring teens is to form a group of 3-4 teens with similar diagnoses. These groups would not last for a full hour but could be modified to 30 to 45 minutes depending on the clients and the intensity of the group. I would consider a small group as I have described first, and if this is not feasible, I would consider individual and family sessions. Substance abuse treatment programs for teens with Asperger's are rare and difficult to find. However, I would contact the programs listed above and see if they have record of any programs or individual therapists who are trained to administer these programs to teens with Asperger's and an alcohol abuse problem. My last resource would be National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) which is SAMSHA’s National Registry of Evidenced-based Programs and Practices (for Co-Occurring Treatment) http://nrepp.samhsa.gov/SearchResultsNew.aspx?s=b&q=co-occurring treatment

    Although alcohol has provided some self-soothing benefit for your son, it brings with it another potential set of problems. After his alcohol abuse has been adequately treated, more appropriate self-soothing behaviors should be identified and pursued. An organization which works with ASD, i.e., Autistic Spectrum Disordered individuals is the Handel Institute. This Institute, through its screeners and practitioners, can assist your son in using non-pharmaceutical interventions for self-soothing exercises.

    I hope this information has been useful to you and your family. This problem is not generally addressed and more provision should be made for teens with Asperger's and any kind of substance abuse. Please feel free to contact me again if you ever need anything else.


    John W. O’Neal, Ed.S, LPC, NCC

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