Substance Abuse – Safeguarding Your Special Needs Teenager

Substance Abuse – Safeguarding Your Special Needs Teenager

The case earlier this year in Temecula CA, of a special needs teen being entrapped and arrested for supplying illegal drugs to an undercover police officer has highlighted that as parents of a special needs child, the need to safeguard them in the community is as important as ensuring their security and well-being at home. We need to ensure they are able to interact in social situations; however, we also need to do our best to protect them from possible manipulation, both by other kids and by adults in the outside world.

Manipulation of Special Needs Teens by Others

The arrest of a number of special needs and autistic teenagers at Chapparral High School, in the Temecula Valley Unified School District, during an authorized undercover police operation has led not only to an outcry on the part of parents and other local residents, but has garnered national attention.

The undercover officer befriended an autistic boy, who was new to the school, and immediately began to press him to sell his prescription medication to the officer. When the boy refused, the officer then put pressure on him to obtain illegal drugs. Twenty-one other children were also implicated in the operation. The parents of the boy have since filed a claim against Temecula Valley Unified School District.

This raises a huge question of how we can protect our special needs child from events that they do not understand the implications of.

Substance Abuse and Learning Disabilities

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University examined the link between learning disability and substance abuse, concluding that there is need for action to protect special needs children from falling prey to drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

They identified two imperatives in the fight to protect vulnerable children: first that learning disability in children must be identified as early as possible and to treat this as a priority to reduce the possibility of them developing addiction; secondly, to ensure that children with learning disabilities who do become involved with substance abuse receive treatment which is tailored specifically for their needs.

There is sufficient evidence of a link between learning disorders and substance abuse for all those involved with special needs children to need to be aware that there is an increased risk for special needs children.

Children with learning disabilities often experience difficulty in relating to others, are more likely to fail in school and are more likely to perceive themselves as poor students. Low academic achievement and peer rejection are common factors in substance abuse, together with low self esteem. A special needs child is twice as likely to suffer Attention Deficit Disorder, which is associated with early onset of substance abuse and increased difficulty in overcoming addiction. There is a higher incidence of learning difficulties in individuals participating in substance abuse treatment than in the general population. One study suggests an incidence of 40% of people in treatment with learning disabilities; while another study indicated that figure to be nearer 60%.

With learning disabilities affecting up to 20% of children in the country and a similar figure for behavioral disorders (with a significant overlap), it is clear that the characteristics of learning disability of low self esteem, poor academic performance, loneliness and depression are the same fundamental triggers for substance abuse. An informed understanding of the links between behavioral problems, learning disability and addiction is critical to the development of strategies for prevention and treatment.

Diagnosis and Treatment

These conditions can and do have a devastating effect on families, but correct diagnosis can be difficult as the symptoms often overlap and can be similar to common behavior in teenagers and immature children. With substance abuse being the number one public health care problem today, the fiscal and emotional costs to the family and the financial costs to the taxpayer are enormous. Treatment programs are essential to help the child and their family to cope with the symptoms of withdrawal when helping the child to overcome their addiction. These often focus on gradual reduction of the addictive substance until major side effects, such as seizures or psychosis, are no longer likely to occur. There are other organizations, such as Against the Grain, which work to promote academic skills through mentoring, effectively removing one of the major triggers for substance abuse in children. Their Image Builders Program provides academic mentoring to hundreds of children at risk of academic failure in Tennessee, with impressive results. Those children who were at greater risk of social problems, including addiction are instead becoming leaders in their school.

Substance abuse is clearly preventable. Effective treatment and prevention programs, both at home and school, can reduce the risk of children moving into substance abuse and lower drug use rates amongst children and teens.

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