Much controversy surrounds the use of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic or medicinal purposes.
Drugs such as LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) are controlled drugs, classified as Schedule I controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Schedule I drugs have no approved medicinal uses in the United States. However, this does not mean that they do not have some therapeutic effects. Research has often shown that some drugs in this class do.
Psychedelic drugs have long been studied regarding their potential benefits, especially in people with mental health and brain disorders like schizophrenia and autism. Some research shows that drugs like LSD, while not sanctioned by the FDA to treat autism, could potentially have some positive effects on the brains of autistic adults.
Psychedelics & the Brain
Psychedelic drugs, often referred to as hallucinogens, often change how people view themselves and their surroundings. These drugs alter thought processes and emotions. They are powerful mind-altering chemicals and mostly classified as illegal drugs.
Psychedelic drugs include:
- LSD (acid).
- Psilocybin (magic mushrooms).
- MDMA (ecstasy).
- Ketamine (special K).
These drugs impact the way the brain communicates, disrupting the normal transmission of serotonin. This is one of the brain’s chemicals that helps to manage emotions and moods.
Psychedelic drugs can cause distortions of time, the senses, and space. They can induce hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not really there) and change how a person relates to the world around them.
A “trip” is often described as either positive or negative. It can last anywhere from an hour to up to 12 hours after taking the drug, depending on the specific drug and dosage.
People with autism have dysfunctions in the brain’s chemical pathways and functions. This is where the notion comes in that psychedelic drugs may actually help regulate the autistic brain.
The ‘60s, Psychedelics & Medical Research
The 1960s were a time of great experimentation, including with drugs. LSD was one of the popular, as it could cause a kind of psychosis and provide insight into how the brain worked. Medical research involving LSD, including some funded by the CIA, aimed to better understand the connection between the transmission of serotonin and its involvement in mental health disorders.
LSD showed promise in controlled experiments, as it had few negative side effects and was nonaddictive. Medical research involving LSD in the United States was abruptly stopped in 1970 when the drug was placed into Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, making it an illegal drug as it was gaining popularity for recreational use.
The use of LSD for therapeutic purposes is back on the radar again. It is being considered as a means to treat:
- Issues related to cancer.
- End-of-life anxiety.
- Addiction and substance use disorders.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Autism spectrum disorder.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
The Controversial Use of LSD for Autism Treatment
The use of LSD for autism was studied between the 1960s and 1970s, and it did show some positive impact. These studies were not properly controlled, however. They were based on the idea that no other treatment for autism had worked — a notion that is inherently flawed.
LSD is back on the map for its potential benefit in treating autism, although studies are considered controversial.
These early studies, while questionable, did show that LSD helped children between the ages of 6 and 10 with severe autism who were resistant to other forms of treatment. LSD appeared to result in:
- More positive moods.
- Improved speech.
- Enhanced emotional responsiveness.
- Less frequent obsessive behaviors.
Autism is a disorder that leads to difficulties with socializing, communicating, and emotional awareness. Studies show that adults with Asperger’s syndrome (which is considered a mild version of autism) have lower levels of serotonin receptors. LSD interacts with serotonin transmission in the brain and therefore may be able to help bridge this gap, increasing brain connectivity in someone with high-functioning autism. It could also improve social interactions and a person’s ability to understand emotions and connect to the world around them.
Anecdotal reports of LSD use in the autism community report relaxation, improved sleep patterns, less dissociation, and more positive social connections with peers in people on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. People with autism tend to think differently than other people, and LSD may help to organize their thoughts in a way that is more coherent to neurotypical individuals.
The early studies of LSD did not show improved speech patterns in severely autistic children as hoped. They also indicated higher levels of anxiety and more intense mood swings.
LSD is an unpredictable drug. The emotional state a person is in before taking it can impact their experience on the drug.
Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic drug taken from specific types of mushrooms. It can cause distortions in behavior, mood, and perceptions. People often have what they refer to as a “spiritual experience” while on magic mushrooms.
Research has shown that psilocybin can change the way the different parts of the brain communicate with each other, potentially improving network connections when used in controlled situations.
Psilocybin has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression in cancer patients who have terminal diagnoses. It has also been proven effective in treating nicotine addiction. Psychedelics are further being considered to help with some symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Psilocybin, like LSD, is considered an agonist of the serotonin receptors. This means it can potentially have positive effects on mood and social connection for someone with autism who likely has fewer of these receptors. As a hallucinogenic drug, it can be difficult to predict whether or not the experience on the drug will be positive or negative.
MDMA for Autism
MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethampethamine), often called ecstasy, is psychotropic drug known for its ability to promote empathy and feelings of closeness as well as enhanced sensory perceptions.
Studies into the use of MDMA have shown that the drug does indeed have prosocial components. It can help people to feel more loving toward others, thus improving a person’s ability to connect socially and emotionally. It likely works by decreasing the impact of negative emotions and therefore enhancing social contact.
MDMA makes it hard for a person to recognize negative emotions, such as anxiety or fear in others. People with autism who are under the influence of MDMA may exhibit behaviors that can seem threatening to others without intending to do so. People with autism already have difficulties reading people around them. Further decreasing this ability with MDMA can put them at risk.
High-functioning autistic adults often develop social anxiety as a result of being expected to conform socially and not having the same social and emotional awareness as their peers. There are no FDA-approved medications for the treatment of this issue, but MDMA use has had some positive results, though its use is highly controversial.
A clinical trial shows that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy (the use of MDMA in a therapy setting) can potentially improve social anxiety in high-functioning autistic adults. Larger studies need to be done to replicate and further explore the research into using MDMA to treat social anxiety in autism.
Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy (PAP)
There are some implications that using psychedelic drugs, such as ketamine, LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA, during therapy sessions can have some practical and therapeutic results. Use of these drugs for medicinal or therapeutic purposes is highly controversial, as they are still considered illegal drugs in the United States. This makes it difficult to obtain permission or the ability to conduct proper research studies into the use of novel psychotropic drugs for treatment purposes.
Psychedelic drugs, when used as a part of a therapy program, have shown some positive results for treating mental health disorders in fewer sessions than traditional therapeutic techniques alone. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (PAP) typically includes therapy sessions before and after drugs are administered as well as controlled dosages in a secure environment during therapy sessions.
Some researchers lament a stall in developing novel treatments, including the use of psychedelics due to cultural and societal constraints.
Dangers of Schedule I Drugs
Schedule I drugs are classified as illegal. Possession and use of them can lead to serious criminal and legal repercussions.
Psychedelic drugs are also highly erratic. Each experience or “trip” can be different from the last. Even if a psychedelic drug seems to help one time, it may not be as helpful in alleviating symptoms at its next use.
There is no regulation on illicit substances and no way to know exactly what you are getting. MDMA is often cut with other toxic substances, for example, and it can be impossible to know if the drug you are getting is actually what it is purported to be. This can increase your risk for overdose and health complications, including death.
Hallucinogenic drugs can have physical side effects, such as rapid heart rate, increased body temperature, and a mental break from reality, which can induce panic, paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and increased risk-taking behaviors.
It can be especially harmful to use mind-altering substances before adulthood as the brain is still developing. While hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin are not considered addictive, MDMA can be. Repeated use can lead to a substance use disorder.
Research on the use of psychedelic drugs to help autism symptoms is sparse. To date, there is not much evidence to either support or refute the use of these substances. More evidence is needed to understand both the possible benefits of these substances as well as the potential side effects and risk factors.
Ultimately, it’s never a good idea to take any illegal drug. There is potential in this area, but until more research is conducted, there are too many unknowns when it comes to psychedelics like LSD and autism.
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