Autism Interview #126: David Gray-Hammond on Autism and Addiction

David is an Autistic adult from the UK. He is Chief Operating Officer at Neuroclastic and has helped commission services for addicts in Brighton as an independent consultant. David is in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction (now sober) and blogs at Emergent Divergence. This week he discussed his past addiction and path to recovery and the relationship between autism and addiction.

Describe your awareness of your autistic identity. Did you suspect you were autistic before receiving a formal diagnosis? What did you know about autism before your diagnosis?

For as long as I can remember, my mother had raised me to understand that I was likely autistic. She had even tried to get me diagnosed, but was turned away by the specialists in my part of the UK. I didn’t really begin to identify with being autistic until I was in my mid-twenties. At this point, I was very aware that I was autistic, and once again sought a diagnosis, which I received at age 26.

All I really knew about autism before my diagnosis was the official diagnostic criteria, and that many people considered autistic people to be weird. I never felt weird, but was often ostracised from social groups at school for not behaving like the other children.

You’ve written that you view addiction as “a symptom of an unmet support need” and that your unmet support need was your mental health from years of masking without an autism diagnosis. Do you think your life would have been different with an earlier diagnosis? Explain.

Yes, I do believe my life would have been different with early diagnosis. I grew up trying to hide fundamental parts of myself from society. This took on a new form at age 18 when I started hearing voices and suffering psychotic symptoms. If I had received appropriate support for being autistic, I perhaps would not have masked so much. Perhaps if I had known it was okay to show that I was struggling, I would not have turned to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate my psychotic symptoms and the more uncomfortable traits of being autistic. I was lucky to have a very supportive mother, but there was only so much she could do for me when specialists were refusing to diagnose me. Outside of my home, I felt strongly that I had to hide who I was.

What are some ways parents, teachers, doctors, and/or therapists can be more sensitive to and/or help prevent addiction for the autistic people in their lives? 

People need to understand that drug and alcohol addiction is not a moral failing, it is an illness, a symptom of a greater underlying issue. It’s important to look at the behaviours of addiction through an autistic lense. The rituals involved in drug use become repetitive behaviours, almost like stimming, but darker. For me it also became a special interest, drug and alcohol use was all consuming, and that needs to be recognised.

It’s also important to move away from abstinence models that are taught at school. The truth is that a lot of kids experiment with drugs and alcohol. We need to be teaching kids that it’s okay to talk about their drug and alcohol use, and how to be (relatively) safe while engaging in these behaviours. The stigma and silence that drug and alcohol use is met with directly contribute to the damage that addiction can do.

You’ve written a blog post about the unique challenges autistic adults experience in recovery programs. In what ways did these unique challenges impact your three-year drug and alcohol treatment?

Drug and alcohol treatment relied heavily on my executive functioning. Remembering appointments can be difficult enough when you are autistic, but when you add the chaos of addiction, it is near impossible.

The sensory experience of the treatment unit was also unpleasant. People who are struggling with personal hygiene, fluorescent lights, people loudly experiencing crises in the waiting area. One of the most anxiety-provoking parts was the windowless, clinically white room that my appointments took place in.

All of this made it very difficult to engage, because I felt I had to get high just to get through my appointments. In the end, it was only when I was nearly dead that I started engaging. I had no other choice at that point.

Describe your role at Neuroclastic. What made you decide to get involved? What’s one of your favorite articles you’ve contributed?

I am Chief Operating Officer at NeuroClastic. I had followed the work of NeuroClastic for about 6 months to a year, and I was very keen to have a place to publish my advocacy writing that would have a decent reader base. I contacted them through the website, and was happy to be taken on almost immediately. I quickly got heavily involved in the day-to-day operations, and that is how I became COO.

My favourite article I have contributed is actually not about addiction; it is entitled “Yes, my autism does define me,” and it is a personal essay about what being autistic means to me. It was great fun to write, and I think it has an important message.

What are the best supports you have received?

Besides the wonderful support of my family and friends, the best support I have received was that of my care coordinator from the mental health services. If I had a support need, she made sure it was met. I have since been discharged back into primary care under a new psychiatric nurse who still provides me with immense support. The love and support of a family is wonderful, but when you experience addiction and complex mental health issues, it is important to have suitable support from treatment services.

Who is your greatest ally? Why?

This is a difficult question to answer. My mother and sister have always been wonderful–they always respected my boundaries and needs, and went out of their way to support me, even through the darkest times. I also have a few close friends who have been vital to my wellbeing. Of course Terra who founded NeuroClastic has been a fierce ally of mine since I started there. I’m not sure I could narrow it down to just one person. Part of being in recovery is having a good support network, and that’s exactly what I have. Everyone in my life enriches it in some way. I would give a special mention to my best friend Jay–he and I have a level of understanding with each other that is invaluable. I realise none of this gives you a straight answer, but I would probably have to write a dissertation to discuss all the great allies I have had in my life. In that sense, I have been very privileged.

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