Autism is a social disorder that can sometimes be severely debilitating and distressing for both autistic people and their carers. Current approaches to managing autism are varied and often ineffective. As with many other mental health conditions, autism could potentially be managed with psychedelic therapy.
Unfortunately, there are no large-scale studies on the potential of psychedelics in the management of autism. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, a handful of studies experimented with giving psychedelics to autistic children; but all suffered from severe design flaws that make their results practically useless. Unsurprisingly, the reactions of children to doses of LSD were erratic and didn’t tell the researchers anything about the use of psychedelics to manage 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.
I guess it broke down barriers, is how I would describe it. Yeah, it felt like up until that point, I just sort of always lived in a shell, like in a bubble. The way I isolated from people, and, yeah, 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.
More success stories from those with autism
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.
Backing up these initial findings, a more structured study funded by the psychedelic research charity MAPS has shown that MDMA-assisted therapy is more effective at reducing social anxiety than therapy alone. This suggests that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could be utilized to manage social anxieties in severely autistic people.
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 conditions like depression and OCD. 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 autistic people.
Recent evidence suggests that the Default Mode Network (DMN), an area of the brain responsible for attention and focus, acts differently in autistic people. This links into findings that psychedelics can disrupt the DMN, allowing people to break out of cyclic, focused and often damaging forms of thinking. It’s possible that psychedelics could help autistic people break free from a system of mind that keeps their attention fixed on unhelpful things.
A novel treatment for an evolving disorder
Although autism is still not well understood, and the ideal methods for its management are still unclear; psychedelics could be a useful tool for therapists in helping autistic people to break free of normal patterns of cognition, and address social issues with less resistance.