The Potential for Psychedelics and People with Autism Spectrum Disorder

More studies must explore how psychedelic treatment can help adults manage ASD.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause behavioural, communication, or social challenges. ASD includes several conditions that were previously diagnosed separately: Asperger syndrome, autistic disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

In the first report entitled Autism Spectrum Disorders Among Children and Youth in Canada released in 2018, one in 66 Canadian children and youth aged five to 17 years have an ASD diagnosis, which is in line with results of similar studies conducted in the US. Boys receive an ASD diagnosis four times more frequently than girls.

Even if people aren’t diagnosed as a child, they may notice symptoms of high-functioning autism later in life. Neurodiversity—the concept that some people have neurological differences and those differences should be valued rather than “corrected”—is more widely accepted today. Still, a diagnosis of autism as an adult can come as an unwanted surprise, and denial or anxiety can follow. A diagnosis may also come as a relief. Adults with ASD have strengths to draw upon, and unique challenges to overcome and address, including difficulty building or maintaining relationships, social isolation, managing mood disorders, and staying organized.

Once children turn 18, they typically lose access to government funding and services intended for children with ASD. Autism services are currently a provincial jurisdiction in Canada, but many adults end up in psychiatric wards where they don’t get the care they need. More support must be available for adults with autism that address housing, employment, healthcare and recreation. With these services, adults with ASD can face homelessness and other risky situations.

Mental health support is crucial. Seventy percent of individuals on the spectrum have a comorbid mental health condition (like anxiety, depression, psychosis and suicidality), with 40 percent having two or more disorders. The Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance (CASDA), a national coalition of organizations and individuals committed to securing a federal strategy for ASD funding and policies, believes a national strategy is necessary to improve life for Canadians with autism and has attempted to create recommendations for the government since 2007.

Treatment is recommended for children with ASD. Adults with ASD may find certain types of treatment beneficial. Treatments don’t aim to cure ASD but help adults address issues such as anxiety, rigid thinking, or depression. They may include therapy (specifically Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and vocational rehabilitation.

Psychedelic Studies and Programs Involving Participants with Autism

Between 1959 and 1974, groups of researchers reported on the use of d-Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) in the treatment of children with autism and justified its use based on the logic that other treatment efforts had failed. They conducted these experiments without controls or rigorous study designs and often lacked participants’ informed consent. In 2007, a group of researchers reviewed the research in Developmental Neurorehabilitation and concluded, “the vast majority of these initial Autism/LSD studies were so flawed that the resulting data are little better than anecdote.”

Today, experts agree that pairing psychedelics with therapy is the key to their efficacy.

In 2018, MAPS conducted the only double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot clinical trial in the 21st century to explore feasibility and safety of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for reduction of social fear and avoidance in the autistic population. Researchers spaced two eight-hour experimental psychotherapy sessions one-month apart in a controlled clinical setting, with three non-drug psychotherapy sessions following each. Improvement in Leibowitz Social Anxiety Scale (LSAS) scores from baseline to the primary endpoint was significantly greater for the MDMA group compared to the placebo group. Change in LSAS scores from baseline to six -month follow-up showed similar positive results. Social anxiety remained the same or continued to improve slightly for most participants in the MDMA group after completing the active treatment phase.

Cover, Autism on Acid

At the age of 23, Aaron Orsini was diagnosed with ASD and took LSD when he was 27. After publishing a book, Autism on Acid, and starting the website AutismonAcid.com, others with ASD and an interest in psychedelics reached out to him. They formed the Autistic Psychedelic Community and later compiled a book, Autistic Psychedelic

“What we’re really trying to do is just build this conversation and just create a space for it,” Orsini said in an interview with Filter. He continued, “We’re trying to encourage harm reduction and safety at every turn. Yes, this is exciting, but we don’t want harms to befall anyone out there at all.” Orsini added that he tries to tap into the psychedelic space using meditation and breathwork, rather than drugs.

In October, Nova Mentis Life Science Corp. (Nova Mentis) and Mycrodose Therapeutics (Mycrodose) entered into a letter of intent to develop patented products to treat neuroinflammatory disorders such as ASD. “NOVA’s lead drug candidate, psilocybin, has revealed significant promising results in preclinical models of fragile X syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. The results are exciting and have shown that psilocybin corrects the cognitive deficits displayed by a rat model of FXS and mitigates the anxiety-like traits observed in an environmental model of autism based on prenatal exposure to valproic acid,” stated Marvin S. Hausman MD, Chairman of NOVA’s Scientific Advisory Board in a news release. 

Fragile X Syndrome (FXS) is an inherited genetic condition that results in intellectual disabilities and cognitive impairment. Those with FXS are frequently diagnosed with ASD. The therapeutic study for autism and FXS will be the first to research the potential for psilocybin to help treat pediatric patients.

In November 2021, Mind Medicine Inc. announced on Tuesday a new program meant to deploy MDMA to treat social anxiety in diagnoses that include ASD. MindMed plans to advance an MDMA development program targeting the US and the EU, and expects to start its first clinical trials in 2022. 

In December, the initial permeation studies using human skin occurred at Mycrodose Therapeutics’ labs in San Diego, California to prove that NOVA’s drug compound can successfully be delivered through human skin through Mycrodose’s transdermal technology. The companies believe that neuroinflammatory conditions such as FXS may not require a high dose of a psychedelic compound, or a large macrodose amount of drug, for a patient to benefit therapeutically.

“This cooperative transdermal delivery technology expands the possibilities of treating chronic developmental disorders such as Fragile X Syndrome without exposing the child or adult to intolerable hallucinogenic side effects,” stated Will Rascan, NOVA’s CEO & President. “A low dose, or microdose treatment of drug using a transdermal patch is ideal because it can be monitored and changed in a home or in a clinical environment, which goes a long way to save time for our overworked medical community and lower medical costs for families with disabled children.”

As stated, autism spectrum disorder is not a condition to be fixed, but managed. More studies may shine more light on how the use of psychedelics and psychotherapy can improve the quality of life for those with ASD.

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