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Terri Mauro

Drugs, Drink, and the Developmentally Disabled

By December 17, 2008

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Hey, need something else to worry about? Feeling a little short today on the feelings of panic and despair? Here ya go: People with developmental disabilities have been identified as a group at particular risk for alcohol and drug addiction. So in addition to obsessing over whether your challenged child will be able to learn or graduate or get a job or have a life, you can now fret that anytime he or she is enjoying a social outing or being accepted by peers, it's all in the service of getting high or drunk.

In "Addiction Risks for People With Developmental Disabilities," Elizabeth Hartney, the new guide to Addictions for About.com, reports that this dismaying problem is actually the dark side of a brighter future: When people with developmental disabilities were routinely institutionalized, alcohol and nonprescription drugs weren't a part of whatever sort of marginalized lives they had. Now, though, with school inclusion and community living and integrated employment, individuals with developmental disabilities are right out there enjoying the same peer pressure, anxieties, and opportunities for dangerous decision-making as anybody else. And more, since they're especially susceptible to manipulation, people-pleasing, and lack of cause-and-effect thinking.

Hartney also speculates that the amount of supervision and control children with developmental disabilities receive -- all the special classrooms and one-on-one aides and helicopter parenting -- may make them excessively and dangerously trusting of grown-ups, even ones who are untrustworthy. Therapies like ABA, which reward going along with the will of another, might also contribute to a dangerous degree of compliance.

The question becomes, then, for parents, how do we balance all our children's conflicting needs, for support and for independence, for protection and for developmentally appropriate experiences, for inclusion in what's good and exclusion from what's bad? How do you teach a child to have enough backbone to resist a predator or a malicious "friend," but not so much backbone that they won't accept needed assistance? "Just Say No" to drugs, but don't say it to me, kid.

I've got two teenagers now, in their prime live-fast-die-young-risk-all years, but developmentally, they're still at the stage where adults tell you drugs and alcohol are bad and you believe them, to the point of making outraged comments when you see people drinking in public. There's no drinking in private at our house; it wasn't long after adopting my son, who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, that I realized I couldn't talk to him about the damage his birthmother's drinking did to his brain while there was a box of wine in my cupboard. Not seeing alcohol as part of our family lifestyle may, I've hoped, keep it from being part of his, even though I'd guess addiction runs deep in his birthfamily.

Elizabeth's article put me back on alert that, as my kids go toward the sort of freedom and independence that we all wish for, it's going to be important to maintain communication and rule reinforcement and vigilance. Similar risks arise with sexuality; I've reviewed some good books on that. Have you come upon good resources for discussing drugs and alcohol with your kids, and reinforcements against peer pressure? Share them, as well as your own personal strategies, in the comments.

Read more: Special Needs News | Site of the Day | Before You Look for Information on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

December 18, 2008 at 11:42 am
(1) Elizabeth Hartney says:

Great commentary, Terri. I’d like to add that parents and caregivers can check out my suggestions for reducing risk of addictions here:


I echo your advice to provide positive and consistent role modelling about the use of substances, but I wouldn’t limit this to alcohol. How often do you pop a pill for a headache? How often do you medicate yourself or your child for a problem that could be addressed behaviorally?

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