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Are Intellectual And Developmental Disabilities Linked To Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction and intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DDs) go hand in hand. People with these types of disabilities often experience different types of barriers in their life, whether it’s communication, social, policy, or attitudinal barriers, they can easily affect one’s ability to live a normal, happy, and healthy life.

While an able-minded person would be able to go about their day without any of these barriers, someone with an intellectual or developmental disability may have to deal with multiple barriers at a time, on a regular basis. This constant push-back and inability can lead to issues with mental health, which is often a cause of alcohol addiction.

What Are Intellectual And Developmental Disabilities?

Intellectual and developmental disabilities are disorders that are often present from the start of one’s life. For this reason, they impact physical, intellectual, and emotional development and have a large impact on one’s childhood and adult life.

Intellectual disabilities are categories as a disorder that affect one’s intelligence and intellectual function. This means that they may have trouble learning, problem solving, and reasoning. In translation, these effects can blur into one’s social life, causing problems with socialization and life skills.

Developmental disabilities cover a much wider range, encompassing disorders that can be intellectual, physical, or both. The term I/DD refers to situations in which a person has both an intellectual disability and another disability.

People With I/DDs Are More Likely To Experience Trauma

People who have intellectual and developmental disabilities are more likely to experience trauma over those who aren’t disabled. Those who experienced trauma at a young age are also more likely to develop a developmental disability. On top of that, individuals with I/DD are also 4 times more likely to be victims of crime and abuse.

16.6% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience sexual abuse, and the risk of general abuse increases by 78% when exposed to the disability service system.

Not only is abuse and trauma common at a young age, but people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are vulnerable to abuse and trauma throughout their entire life. When traumatic events occur, they’re more likely to suffer side effects over other people. Some I/DDs also decrease one’s capacity to heal from these events, making them much more traumatic in the long-term. They’re also less likely to tell someone about the abuse or trauma they endured and more likely to display trauma-related behavior in response.

Mental Health Within The I/DD Community

As people with I/DD are more likely to experience trauma and abuse, they’re also more likely to struggle with mental health disorders, especially depression and anxiety. In fact, one study showed that 91% of people with a psychiatric diagnosis had been exposed to at least one traumatic event in their life while 69% had been repeatedly exposed to trauma for long periods of time.

In turn, 32.9% of adults with disabilities reported that they were frequently mentally distressed, experiencing 14 or more poor mental health days in a 30-day period. The connection between intellectual and developmental disabilities, trauma, and mental health is undeniable. Even without an I/DD, people who experience massive amounts of trauma and struggle with mental health issues are often the people who develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Why Do People With I/DDs Turn To Alcohol?

There are many reasons why people with I/DD turn to alcohol to solve their problems. Both mental health and trauma are cited as being large reasons behind alcoholism but drinking problems within the I/DD community may stem more from the inability to properly communicate and socialize.

According to Susan Tatum, LCSW, assistant director of clinical and emergency services at the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services in Virginia, “In all the ways that clients with I/DD are more vulnerable for any reason, they can be vulnerable to substance abuse.”

Many people with I/DD experience a high level of supervision during their early years. Those who don’t have this supervision or if the supervision diminishes are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

On top of that, Maria Quintero, PhD, assistant deputy director of the I/DD services division of the MHMRA of Harris County, TX states that, “Drinking is a social activity that can help a person feel like part of a crowd. That social function is strong in people with I/DD.”

There is already social pressure to drink with groups of friends. Adding a disability that effects one’s ability to properly perceive social cues can lead to many of them feeling like outcasts, which only increases the amount of pressure. The social stigma of having an I/DD is also known to contribute to the risk of developing an AUD.

Identifying Alcohol Addiction In People With Intellectual And Developmental Disabilities

Identifying alcohol addiction or dependence in people with I/DD can be difficult. Studies show that I/DDs often mask the warning signs of alcohol addiction, making it harder to tell when someone is under the influence.

Quintero goes on to state that, “If we do not see people with I/DD as adolescents and adults capable of emotions and behaviors common to anyone, we risk missing obvious signs of an altered state.”

When people with intellectual and developmental disabilities aren’t treated as human beings who are, “capable of emotions and behaviors common to anyone,” they often don’t get the treatment that they need, as they aren’t recognized as likely to develop an alcohol addiction in the first place.

People with I/DD that experience great social disability or anxiety are also less likely to be able to find a safe ride home, know when to stop drinking, or recognize that they have a problem at all. For this reason, it’s of the utmost importance that they receive treatment early.

For more information on treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.

  • Author: Megan Prevost | Last Updated: July 27, 2022

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    Megan Prevost

    Megan Prevost earned a B.F.A. in Creative Writing for Entertainment from Full Sail University. Her work has appeared in many different publications, and she’s held columns and guest spots on LGBTQ+ and entertainment websites. Previously, she’s written copy and content for both law firms and healthcare clinics. She is proud to be able to use her writing ability to help the addiction and mental health communities.

  • Medical Reviewer: Deborah Montross Nagel

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