The psychedelic renaissance shows no sign of abating.
Substances such as psilocybin from magic mushrooms and truffles, once dubbed as purely recreational, are now being studied as the next big thing in mental health treatment. However, the research being done so far has focused only on neurotypical volunteers. What about individuals who possess unique brain pathways, such as adults with autism? How would the wonders of psilocybin work on neurodivergent minds?
Indeed, a new question comes to the world of science. Can shrooms and magic truffles offer new benefits for autistic adults, who may wish to not just survive — but also thrive! — in a world that has largely overlooked their needs?
New Psilocybin Study for Autistic Adults
Researchers from King College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) are now gearing up for a new study on psilocybin’s effects on autistic adults. The upcoming project, code-named Psilaut, will dive into how psilocybin alters the unique brain pathways in autistic adults, as opposed to non-autistic volunteers.
This study will be the first of its kind to test psilocybin in autistic adults. To leave no room for doubt in the world of medicine, Psilaut will be double-blind, randomised, and placebo-controlled as well. Lead researcher Prof. Grainne McAlonan, Professor of Translational Neuroscience at King’s IoPPN, explained their hopes for the project in a press release:
“I am delighted that COMPASS Pathways is supporting our investigations into the brain science of neurodiversity. Our long-term goal is to provide more and better-tailored choices for autistic people and those with related conditions. Before embarking on clinical trials, we need to really understand brain mechanisms in autistic people.”
Professor McAlonan had already led several other research efforts in autism. This time around, Psilaut is co-sponsored by King’s IoPPN and the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. COMPASS Pathways provides the study’s compound, called COMP360 psilocybin. Forty autistic and 30 non-autistic adults will take part in the study.
Hope for Neurodiverse People
The study, which takes place at King’s IoPPN, will find out if serotonin (aka the “happy hormone”) works differently in the brain networks of autistic and non-autistic adults, respectively. Serotonin signalling is also the chemical in the brain most linked to “trippy” effects. With the help of behavioural tasks and brain scans, the scientists will be able to pinpoint the exact ways in which psilocybin alters the serotonin system.
Klara, a participant in an earlier study of autism, was delighted to hear that scientists are now working to be more neurodiverse in their psychedelic research. And with the help of psilocybin, they might just be able to map out the unique brain patterns of autistic people. It’s a deeply personal matter for Klara, as she explained:
“My son and I both have autism, and this can be challenging at times. I’m pleased that researchers are looking into what makes an autistic brain different from a neurotypical one. It gives me hope that in the future, we might uncover new ways to support people and families who may need help, and that society becomes more accepting of people who are neurodiverse.”
Signs and Symptoms of Autism
According to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the number of autistic people has increased threefold since 2000, from 0.67 percent of 8-year-olds to 1.85 percent. Despite that, autism is still one of the most misunderstood conditions in society. Since its traits exist on a spectrum, autism itself can be difficult to define.
There are certain signs that may show that a person is on the spectrum. They often struggle with communication, and forming emotional and social bonds with those around them. They may also get overwhelmed by sensory stimuli such as sounds, lights, and smells.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following symptoms are present in those on the autism spectrum:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Delayed speech and communication skills
- Reliance on rules and routines
- Being upset by relatively minor changes
- Unexpected reactions to sounds, tastes, sights, touch and smells
- Difficulty understanding other people’s emotions
- Focusing on or becoming obsessed by a narrow range of interests or objects
- Engaging in repetitive behaviour such as flapping hands or rocking
- Children not responding to their name by 12 months
- Children not pointing at distant objects by 14 months.
Finding New Options
Dr. Guy Goodwin, Chief Medical Officer at COMPASS Pathways, shared his excitement for the upcoming psilocybin study:
“We are pleased to fund this innovative research, the first of its kind using psilocybin in autistic adults. We hope that this study improves understanding of how the serotonin system is involved in autism. For autistic people who are seeking treatment for symptoms that are causing distress, this research may be the first step in finding new options.”
Psilaut itself will be conducted by Tobias Whelan, PhD student at King’s and Research Scientist at COMPASS Pathways. He is overseen by Professor Declan Murphy and Dr. Nicolaas Puts from King’s IoPPN, who are also researchers in the study. Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr. Carrie Allison at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge will also collaborate and serve as external advisors.
Psychedelics and Autism
This isn’t the first time scientists have tested psychedelics as a way to help autistic adults. In 2017, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) had used MDMA to treat social anxiety in autistic adults, in a trial of 12 participants. The study showed “rapid and durable improvement in social anxiety symptoms”, which are common in those who belong to the autism spectrum.
Berra Yazar-Klosinski, one of the study authors, told Filter that her autistic brother’s social struggle was the chief motivation for her research:
“He’s in his 40s, and he still lives at home with my parents. And so I was always really motivated to try to find a way to help him.”
Though from a small-scale study, the data was promising for the use of MDMA for autism symptoms. Yazar-Klosinski told Filter in the same interview:
“The results had a large effect size, which means that it’s a strong signal that we might be able to alleviate the social anxiety symptoms that they were suffering from. We had a six-month follow up and many of the participants had completely transformed [their] lives after the study. These were folks that never left their parents’ home.
“And after the study, they moved out, and they started school, and they joined a soccer team. All these things that really required a lot of social interaction, they were completely fine.”
Not a Cure for Autism Itself
It’s crucial to know that psychedelic compounds, such as psilocybin and MDMA, are not being studied as a “cure” for autism as a condition. Rather, they are simply being used to help autistic individuals feel more comfortable in their environment.
Yazar-Klosinski clarified to Filter the effects of psychedelics on the autistic mind:
“The part we can treat is the social anxiety and the trauma that comes with being autistic.
“When participants were under the influence, they didn’t actually feel like anything was different sometimes, which was interesting. They’re already living their lives in a pretty altered state. So, having the psychedelic on top didn’t seem all that different.
“As long as they can find a good fit for how their brain functions and find work that’s rewarding, it’s often possible for them to have completely fulfilling lives. Actually, I don’t think that being autistic is a mental health condition. It’s more of a way of being.”
Perhaps Anya Ustaszewski said it best in The Guardian, that “people on the autistic spectrum are disabled more by society than by their autism.”
At 23, Aaron Paul Orsini was diagnosed as autistic.
He was always on “mental rumination mode” to the point of getting trapped by his thoughts. At 27, in a bid to understand and connect with the world outside of himself, he tried LSD for the first time. The psychedelic experience changed his life forever, as Orsini told Filter:
“For myself, it was coming into this awareness that I was missing this sort of energetic signature of other beings in my proximity. Psychedelics showed me that there was something other than the voice inside my head to navigate the world.
“I had the conventional psychedelic experience that many people would report, as far as connecting to nature, to myself, and a sense of oneness or wonder. But the thing that stood out was a deep kind of [experience] that’s referred to as interoceptive processing. And this sort of heightening of my ability to detect inner feeling states.”
Such was the impact of Orsini’s psychedelic experience that he wrote a book about it, called “Autism on Acid: How LSD Helped Me Understand, Navigate, Alter & Appreciate My Autistic Perceptions”. He also made a website to go along with it, AutismOnAcid.com. Other autistic people who had experimented with psychedelics soon sent him messages. One of these like-minded individuals was Justine Lee, a graduate student in pharmacology at University of California.
Bonding Over Zoom
When COVID came and shut down the world, essentially, Orsini and Lee started to host Zoom meetings each week to talk with other autistic folks about psychedelics. The two friends then co-founded the Autistic Psychedelic Community to gather experiences from neurodivergent people. These unique stories were later compiled in a book called “Autistic Psychedelic”.
“What we’re really trying to do is just build this conversation and just create a space for it,” Orsini told Filter. “And one of these questions ongoing is like, are these changes happening only during the exposure to these substances? Are these changes carried forward?”
Autism Psychedelic Community
One such story comes from Thomas:
“Before psychedelics, when I heard a dog barking outside, or a loud car, or a door slam, or someone dropping a plate, I was getting very angry, almost raging, especially if I tried to concentrate. And this is 100% gone today. When there’s a loud noise anywhere, it doesn’t hurt anymore. I’m totally calm.”
Co-founder Lee was thankful for the opportunity to hear stories like Thomas’s, even if only via Zoom and chat messages. She told Filter:
“It’s been kind of an amazing journey. I can’t express enough gratitude for all the community members who have shared their stories, and who just allowed me to be present and listen to them.”
Talk Therapy is Still Key
While the studies on psilocybin and MDMA hold great promise for easing the social anxiety and trauma of autistic adults, experts stress that psychedelics alone will not guarantee lasting results. For psychedelic compounds to be truly effective, they must be paired with talk therapy.
Yazar-Klosinki explained to Filter:
“It’s not enough to just open the door, you have to walk through the door, then go and make some new connections after that. Any psychedelic that creates that kind of altered state, that is capable of rewiring the brain, would create such an opening…It’s really that integration [and] psychotherapy that, I think, is where it’s really important to have both the preparation and integration.”
In 2022, scientists know more about psychedelics than ever before. There’s increasing solid evidence that psychedelics can boost the brain’s “plasticity”, which allows it to rewire thought patterns and make new neural connections, to replace those lost in depression and trauma.
New research has also shown psilocybin to be just as effective as common antidepressants. And with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) having labelled both psilocybin and MDMA as “breakthrough therapies”, you might see shroom-based medicine in the pharmacy sooner in the not-so-distant future.
Indeed, psilocybin has the potential to change the lives of autistic adults for the better. The upcoming first-of-its-kind study from King’s College London will shed light on their unique perspective and find ways to make it easier.
That’s a HUGE win for humanity across the board!