Autism and Quality of Life with MDMA
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MDMA in psychotherapy has the potential to make social life for autistic adults easier to navigate. An initial study investigating the experiences of autistic adults in a guided session of MDMA therapy showed that a large portion of the study group reported feeling at ease socializing with others, and enjoying moments of communion and connection. There are at least two very important reasons why MDMA-assisted therapy for autistic adults is exciting: as previously mentioned, it has the potential to mitigate social anxiety, but it can also catalyze wonderful, positive change in collective social attitudes towards autism. It is important to point out that there is much debate between activists that promote self-advocacy for autistic individuals and groups that claim to seek a “cure” for autism. Self-advocacy groups criticize a discourse commonly called “cure culture,” that certain, seemingly well-intentioned, groups promote. The underlying argument is that “cure culture” is characterized by an attitude of fear and intolerance towards autism. These groups raise money for research that seeks to develop a prenatal test for autism and to find the gene that causes autism with the intent to prevent it before birth. Their main goal is to eradicate autism –but autism cannot be “cured,” it is simply a different, atypical, way that the brain develops.
Applied behavioral analysis, or ABA therapy, is another deleterious practice promoted by cure culture groups. This kind of therapy is structured to change the regulating behavior of autistic children to make them conform to normative social behaviors. The focus of this kind of therapy is to make the child appear more “normal” by setting up a system in which their unacceptable behaviors are discouraged. Thus conditioning the autistic child to refrain from behaviors that may help them cope with overwhelming social situations and sensory overload. Basically, they are made to stop behavior that helps them regulate and better navigate the world around them. ABA therapy is in no way informed by the personal perspectives of autistic people because it is mainly focused on making the autistic individual fit neuro-typical standards of behavior. This is harmful for many reasons. It sends the message that being autistic is not okay and that the behaviors that help one feel more at ease in any socially taxing atmosphere are unacceptable. ABA therapy for children has been linked to emotional distress and post-traumatic stress in autistic adults. In seeking to shift the focus of therapy for autistic individuals by first listening to their experiences and perspectives, we can collectively develop therapy that is intelligent, informed, and truly a form of autistic self-advocacy.
The initial study on MDMA-assisted therapy for autistic adults is focused on the experiences of the participants. Although further studies are necessary to develop personal, nuanced therapy with MDMA, these burgeoning investigations show that it can be of tremendous help for autistic adults to find their social footing.
Bolstering a Culture of Neuro-Diversity
One such study was published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry and was sponsored in part by MAPS, the multi-disciplinary association for psychedelic studies. Researcher Alicia Banforth of UCLA held a presentation of the paper’s findings, emphasizing that the study is not searching for a treatment and that MDMA and other psychedelics cannot “cure” autism. The point of the study was to find out whether MDMA could positively change the feelings of autistic adults regarding social situations. This distinction is pertinent to the goal of conducting research that helps autistics live a better life –not to normalize behaviors. In turn, MDMA-assisted therapy to mitigate social anxiety in autistic adults creates a culture of neuro-diversity and understanding. Instead of stigmatizing autism, the research will shift social perspective by helping others understand that autism is a form of brain development that is simply atypical. This brings us one step closer to greater acceptance of the different ways our brains work. It’s also important to note that this research was conducted by scientists and psychiatrists that study psychedelics, and although measures were taken to minimize biases –the driving interest is in finding whether MDMA can provide benefits to the quality of life of autistic adults.
One hundred and fifty adults participated in the study, which consisted of online surveys and four MDMA-assisted therapy assessments. One hundred of the participants had had previous experience with MDMA, while the remaining fifty had not. The results that highlight MDMA’s potential to treat social anxiety in autistic adults are that over 70% of participants reported feeling “more confident as a result of MDMA” and “feeling at ease in my own body.” After assessing the answers to the interview questions, Banforth found the common themes in the participants’ answers to be increases in feelings of courage, communication, connection, communion, and clarity. For example, participants spoke of the MDMA as lowering barriers and inhibitions, giving them a sense of deeper openness and social confidence. An increase in communication is described by a participant that called himself “George:” “I listened to other people but not in the usual way, i.e. lecture them. I listened to other people and cared deeply about what they were saying.” George went on to discuss that he felt no discomfort and enjoyed making eye contact because it made him feel that he “could see the person behind the eyes.” In this case, like several others in the study, MDMA helped the participant listen to others and increased their ability to pick up on nuanced social queues like eye contact and body language.
Another common thread had to do with connection. One participant described feeling unable to reach out to a group of acquaintances that they’d wished to be friends with. After an MDMA-assisted therapy session, they were able to overcome their fear and intimidation in order to reach out and connect with them, they soon became close his close friends. The study showed a trend in the way the participants were able to cross previous social boundaries, giving them greater freedom to enrich their lives with dating, more friendship, and better relationships with family. Moments of communion with strangers also became more enjoyable to many of the participants. Many talked about a change in the way they reacted to social situations that may have otherwise been awkward or even terrifying to them before. For example, a participant related a story about his interaction with a cute toddler on a train the day after an MDMA-assisted assessment, saying that he was finally able to connect with the other adults around over the shared amusement of the child’s behavior. He described the way he may have felt before MDMA-assisted therapy by saying that small children generally scare him because he doesn’t know how to interact with them. But this time was different; instead of seeing the child in some abstract, pragmatic way, he saw what most people see as a cute kid, whose simple being is entertaining to the adults around it. This participant, along with many others, reported enjoying a shared sense of communion with strangers in moments such as the one described above.
An increase in mental clarity was also commonly reported. The way some study participants described their experiences on MDMA suggests that many discovered a deeper insight about the social world around them. The MDMA-assisted therapy prompted epiphanies that allowed for greater social ease and interaction. A female participant stated that she finally “got it,” referring to the nuances of conversation. Furthermore, the MDMA-assisted therapy proved to have lasting transformative effects. Participants largely felt that the change in their social cognition lasted long after their last MDMA experience and that they were able to retain the positive changes through memory and applying what they learned under its influence. The most promising statistic coming from the study is that 58% of participants agreed with the statement that their social anxiety had been “wiped out” by MDMA-assisted therapy.
A Better Research Model
Research like this featured study holds awesome potential for improving the lives of all autistic individuals. Instead of relegating autism to some frightening disorder that must be eradicated, we can focus on accepting the diversity of the way brains develop and work to make the world a more pleasant place for autistic children and adults. MDMA-assisted therapy could be a major part of shifting the popular discourse surrounding autism as well as psychedelics. Hopefully, these changes in collective thought will happen simultaneously, facilitating research into the benefits of MDMA-assisted therapy to more promptly develop ways to mitigate the social anxiety of autistic individuals, thus improving the quality of life for many people in our society.
- Sofia Vidal