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Psychedelics and Autism

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    Psychedelics and Autism

    By Patrick Smith

    Autism is a distressing social disorder that can be severely debilitating for both sufferers and parents. Current treatments are varied and often ineffective. As with many other mental health conditions, autism could potentially be treated with psychedelic therapy.

    Unfortunately, there are no large-scale studies on the potential of psychedelics in the treatment of autism. Back in the 60s and 70s there were a handful of studies on autistic children, but all suffered from severe design flaws which makes their results practically useless. Unsurprisingly, the reactions of children to doses of LSD was erratic and didn’t tell the researchers anything about the use of psychedelics to treat autism.

    A 2013 survey performed by scientist Alicia Danforth on hundreds of autistic adults showed that those who had taken MDMA reported significant improvements in problems with social anxiety. Dozens of reports suggested that the psychedelic drug was directly responsible for improvements in wellbeing:

    “It feels nice to be able to change as a person; it was not something that I was expecting very much; for most of my life, I did not change.”


    “It broke down barriers, that's how I would describe it. Until that point, I just sort of always lived in a shell, like in a bubble. The way I isolated from people, and, I just sort of tore that down, I said, ‘There’s no need for there to be a barrier.’”


    “I wanted to talk to people, but not in the way I usually do, i.e., lecture them. I listened to other people and cared deeply about what they were saying. I was actually enjoying making eye contact. Suddenly, there was no discomfort at all. Not only no discomfort, but suddenly, it was like I could see the person behind the eyes, and I wanted to sort of know who it was. And I was sort of just looking in there to look for a slight reaction, slight sort of changes just to see how he was reacting to me.”


    “For the first time, it was very, like, like I finally got it. Like, you know how, I guess, autistic people, they don’t really know those unwritten social rules and all that? You know, the nuances in conversation and stuff like that? Like, I got it. Like, it was just like, bing!”


    “I wanted to talk to people, but not in the way I usually do, i.e., lecture them. I listened to other people and cared deeply about what they were saying. I was actually enjoying making eye contact. Suddenly, there was no discomfort at all.”


    Other, less formal anecdotal reports of autistic adults taking psychedelics are often encouraging. This account from a reddit user describes the benefits they found from a single LSD trip:

    “My senses don’t get overloaded anymore. I used to feel pain by touching rough surfaces. Now it feels a little uncomfortable, but not to the point where it physically hurts due to the stimulation […] Hearing several sounds at once doesn’t give me a headache. Social skills seem improved, as well as reduction of social anxiety. While I was on acid I noticed I had a much harder time expressing myself with language than I do normally. However, I didn’t experience any frustration when I had a hard time expressing myself, I felt pleasure instead. This effect has lasted a while, and I am enjoying it.”

    Similar accounts can be found on reddit and other messaging boards:

    “Since tripping I’ve just become a happier person overall. My depression symptoms have gotten much better and social interaction isn’t so bad anymore. While I still often dislike talking to people, it’s really much better than it was before I started tripping.”


    “Had symptoms, although more so hyper empathy than no empathy, reclusiveness, compulsive/obsessive behavior, social awkwardness, and language/speech issues. Psychedelics have helped me cure those almost entirely.”

    Several people also urge caution in using psychedelics for social disorders:

    “It is my experience and understanding that the psychedelic experience alone does not necessarily help ASD, however the fact that it provides a more ‘open mind’ allows the person with ASD to examine themselves in ways that they might not have previously done so.”

    Popular videos show the effects of LSD on autistic adults, most famously this one, involving an autistic man taking a very large dose of LSD (not recommended for first time users). It’s unclear how the psychedelic experience might have helped his Aspergers, but it’s an interesting example of how psychedelics can affect you positively.

    Research on psychedelics and autism

    Thankfully, there is also some science to back up the use of psychedelics to treat social disorders like autism. There is convincing evidence from studies on MDMA that suggests this party drug could help people open up about their emotions and become more sociable – things that could be really useful to a therapist trying to get through to someone with a social disorder.

    On the pharmacological side of things, a 2006 study showed that autistic adults had impaired binding to serotonin receptors in certain areas of their brains. Impaired serotonin signaling has also been implicated in depression and OCD, and is likely to be an important factor in autism. Psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA dramatically increase serotonin levels in the brain, so this could potentially be a mechanism through which psychedelics could help people with autism.

    Recent evidence suggests that the Default Mode Network (DMN), an area of the brain responsible for attention and focus, acts differently in people with autism. This links in to findings that psychedelics can disrupt the DMN, allowing people to break out of cyclic, focused and often damaging forms of thinking. It’s possibly that psychedelics could help autistic people break free from DMN control that keeps them focused on unhelpful things.

    Currently, one clinical trial is ongoing in the investigation of MDMA’s use in the treatment of autism, but no results have been published yet. From the anecdotal reports, it looks like doses of LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA could dramatically improve symptoms of autism in adults.

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    Ecstasy could help adults with Autism cope with Social Anxiety

    By Liza Gross

    For some people with autism, the idea of facing social situations can be so unnerving it impairs their ability to finish school, hold a job or form relationships. And conventional medications and psychotherapy for anxiety often fail. But early results from a new study suggest that MDMA — commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly — may help adults with autism manage disabling social phobias.

    Feeling Connected

    MDMA is unique among psychedelics for its ability to help people connect and communicate with others, two common problems for those with autism. Early research with MDMA — before federal officials banned it in 1985, citing its abuse as a recreational drug — showed that people who took the drug were less fearful and anxious and more comfortable talking about their problems, something that’s particularly useful in therapeutic settings.

    The study is the first to use MDMA coupled with therapy to treat social anxiety in adults with autism in a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial (volunteers were randomly assigned to take either the active drug or an inactive placebo, but neither the volunteers nor the researchers knew who received which substance). It’s also notable because before researchers designed the study, they asked people in the autism community what their work should focus on. "Not surprisingly, social anxiety emerged as a priority," says Alicia Danforth, a clinical psychologist who co-led the study with psychiatrist Charles Grob.

    Grob and Danforth, both researchers at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, presented their preliminary findings last week at the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference in Oakland, California, where scientists met to discuss the potential of hallucinogenic drugs to help people with treatment-resistant conditions.

    Preliminary Results

    Eleven participants completed Grob and Danforth’s trial and were randomly assigned to receive either a placebo or MDMA during two treatment sessions spaced a month apart. Though the trial was designed mainly to test the feasibility and safety of MDMA as a therapeutic tool, the participants’ responses were compelling.

    Everyone who took a placebo or MDMA in the study showed some improvement, but people who took the MDMA experienced a marked drop in their anxiety after the first session and another drop after the second one. Even six months after the treatment ended, they continued to feel considerably less anxious about social encounters.

    One person in the MDMA group told Danforth over three years after the treatment, “I’m now more me.” That insight in turn helped ease fears of social rejection: “I’m less thin-skinned and allow myself to be more accepting of it,” the patient said.

    However, Grob and Danforth have another participant to evaluate before their final analysis, and they urge caution in overstating the significance of their preliminary findings. But they hope the results will encourage other researchers that it’s worth doing more research on using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to help not just people with autism, but anyone who has extreme social anxiety.

    “We’ll see how it pans out when we add the final subject’s data,” Grob says. “It’s looking very good so far.”

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    Last edited by Sherman Peabody; 11-08-2017, 02:24 PM.