Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Let’s stop calling it ‘the autism’: Reward Deficiency Syndrome


In The Jumbled Jigsaw, I wrote of Reward Deficiency Syndrome as one part of some people’s ‘autism fruit salad’. Reward Deficiency Syndrome (RDS) results in low levels of feelings of reward. As such there is disinterest in much of every day life, learning etc which we tend to call ‘the autism’. Such a person may progressively become defensive, avoidant, even dissociate from experiences their brain fails to give them reward signals about.

If you can imagine the desperation you might feel with a child slipping into either Anhedonia (inability to experience joy) or progressively worsening RDS then you’ll know the level of pursuit you may undertake… and appreciate that in an unmotivated recipient this can easily be perceived as chronic ‘invasion’, triggering natural progressive build up of Exposure Anxiety and associated avoidance, diversion and retaliation responses many confuse with ‘the autism’.

Those with RDS have been found to be born with a genetic polymorphism… a genetic change, a mutation, that results in limited feelings of reward from their own experiences. As you can imagine this would block them from easily self motivating to challenge their own developmental disabilities and contribute to the likelihood of an environment that keeps prompting and prompting. In the developing identity, this then risks the person also failing to transition from infant to child mentality or from child to teen or adult mentality and increases instead their likelihood of developing Dependent Personality Disorder.


I also wrote of Dependent Personality Disorder in The Jumbled Jigsaw. Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD) involves progressive fear of losing control over the carer, a constantly reinforced investment in their own self perception as helpless and incapable.

This leads the person with DPD to progressively compulsively avoid self management, self help skills, or personal development as it carries built in risk that the carer. Commonly the person with DPD will make themselves progressively less capable, even compulsively self endangering to control the carer from the ‘threat’ of them pursuing a life of their own. Once threatened enough by their child’s self endangerment and absolute vulnerability/helplessness, a carer predisposed to co-dependency can become progressively pathologically co-dependent, enabling, an indulging compulsively in disempowering levels of compulsive over-care.

If the person with Reward Deficiency Syndrome (RDS) is also already invested in indulging in learned helplessness as part of DPD, they may progressively strive to successfully extinguish the efforts of others to get them to ‘do new things’ (though they may continue to do things the carer persists in watching over). With a lack of natural felt reward associated with RDS and combined with lack of self driven constructive or development building activity in DPD, the person may progressively find the only thing that causes pleasure is driving up dopamine levels.

Independent adults will commonly compensate for RDS through alcoholism, gambling, risk behaviours, cocaine, heroin. But adults with DPD who have failed to develop to any level of adult independence and self determination may drive up their dopamine levels through FOOD.

Because sugars in particular raise dopamine (so do tyrosine rich foods including many proteins, so do amines in food), the person may find that eating these foods gives them reward feelings. At first this may not be extreme but because the pleasure effects of raised dopamine are highly addictive, they may progressively behave like a heroin addict.

Someone pursuing raised dopamine through food may be far more drawn to foods high in sugar, refined carbs (including sauces, pastry, biscuits, pizza, white rice), high in Tyrosine or amines. And once driven by addiction not to the food, but the dopamine raising effect of the foods, the faster they eat the faster they’d get their fix and the quicker the peak in resulting dopamine. This would lead to the development of craving patterns and like any addict and eventually everything would then revolve around this… all else would become filler, tolerated, perhaps vaguely interesting, perhaps helpful in being a minor distraction from the agitation associated with waiting for the next fix.

This process is progressive… its an addiction process
When the person was craving their fix they would be tetchy, agitated, fixated then they’d get their fix, be blissed, euphoric.
If their usually dopamine level then peaked beyond the pleasure level, they might have episodes of OCD/tics.

When the dopamine peak lowered again, they’d would have ‘seeking’ behaviours, just like an addict trying to distract themselves from what has progressively become more and more uncomfortable levels of addiction. And the cycle would start again.

As their brain gets used to higher and higher levels of dopamine peaks, the same fixes would have to be higher to result in the same level of ‘buzz’. So they’d insist on higher frequence/quantity of the foods they’re using to drive up the dopamine peaks and if they didn’t get the immediate pleasure high, they might, like any addicted adult, rage.

Both of my parents have extreme impulsivity. I feel that my mother in particular displayed the range of issues traditionally associated with RDS in non autistic adults. I feel that my brothers also display similar.

I had severe carb craving in childhood to age 25 when the docs pulled the plug due to type 2 diabetes and systemic candida
Had I been on antifungal diet and supplements and glutamine (which regulates blood sugar) I may not have developed these complications, not have been taken off all refined carbs and still been experiencing RDS.

When I came off all refined carbs (all sauces, all white rice, white flour, starches etc) after 7 days I was immensely full of rage, hit myself, ripped at my hair, pulled off the fence posts, ripped my clothing then I got better and better and by 30 days I still had sudden craving but I was not at all like before.

Those interested in further researching the effects of dopamine, the dopamine mechanisms in RDS or its relationship to autism, Tourettes, OCD, ADHD, ODD here are some resources.



1) get a specialist who truly understands and knows how to treat RDS. If your psychiatrists doesn’t know how to treat RDS, try and find a Neuropsychopharmacologist or an Endocrinologist who does.

2) it may be helpful to reduce all access to refined carbs (incl commercial sauces)… only slow release complex carbs… this way there won’t be sudden dopamine PEAKS and troughs resulting in the swinging between pleasure and craving.

3) the Friendly Food book and reduce foods high in amines and glutamate

Donna Williams, BA Hons, Dip Ed.
Author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter.
Autism consultant and public speaker.

I acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Owners of this country throughout Australia, and their connection to land and community.

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