How Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy Can Help Treat Autism

In recent years there’s been a resurgence of scientific interest into the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances. In previous articles we’ve discussed the treatment efficacy of psychedelics for disorders such as ADHD, OCD, and cluster headaches and migraines

Today, we’ll be going through the potential benefits of psychedelics for treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disability characterized by atypical social behavior. As of yet, science has been unable to uncover all of the neurobiological underpinnings of the conditions.

Because of this, there are no selective treatments that target ASD. Instead, antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and stimulants are the primary pharmaceutical medications prescribed to ameliorate traits associated with ASD. 

In this article, we’ll review the typically co-occurring diagnoses with ASD and how psychedelics have been proven to treat them. Then, a look into the neurobiology of ASD will offer insights into how psychedelics may potentially target the condition’s underlying biomarkers. 

Later, we’ll take a look at first-hand reports of Psychedelic Passage survey respondents who have autism and have previously used or currently use psychedelics to manage the effects of their condition. What makes psychedelic-assisted therapy a viable treatment option for Autism Spectrum Disorder? Let’s get right into it. 

Psychedelics for Co-Occurring Conditions With Autism

The diagnostic criteria for ASD include a preference for non-social stimuli, reduced attention to social stimuli, and aberrant non-verbal social behaviors. Luckily, many studies have surfaced that offer solid evidence for psychedelics’ enhancing effects on social behavior and empathy.

Namely, a 2018 study conducted by D. Erritoze and colleagues, administered 2 doses (10mg and 25mg) of psilocybin to 20 participants over the course of two weeks. The participants also received therapeutic support that included preparation and integration sessions.

The NEO Personality Inventory-Revised instrument was used to measure change from baseline in the 5 domains of personality. Results found that participants experienced a clinically significant decrease in neuroticism (p<0.002), and a clinically significant increase in extraversion (p<0.00) and openness (p<0.012). 

In fact, average baseline neuroticism scores experienced a -5.7 change at the 3-month follow up. Neuroticism measures the presence of negative emotions such as sadness or anxiety. Extraversion scores rose a whopping 6.5 points, and openness scores increased by 4.9 points.

These findings indicate that psilocybin mushrooms significantly increase extraversion and openness while decreasing neuroticism, offering strong support for the potential social-enhancing benefits of psychedelics in people with autism. 

Similarly, in a 2016 study led by Patrick C. Dolder et al, 40 healthy subjects were administered either 100 or 200 μg of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). Using the Multifaceted Empathy Test, researchers found a clinically significant increase in emotional empathy (p<0.01) and cognitive empathy (p<0.05). 

Measures for trust and feelings of closeness to others, both experienced a significant increase (p<0.01). A significant increase in openness was also noted (p<0.05).

These clinically significant increases in openness, trust, emotional and cognitive empathy, and feelings of closeness to others, indicate psilocybin’s strong therapuetic potential for enhancing sociability and emotional intelligence in people with autism. 

Depression, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety are all typically co-occurring diagnoses with ASD. A large body of studies have already proved the treatment efficacy of psychedelics for these conditions, which implicate these as potential targets for aiding ASD. 

A 2014 study on LSD for anxiety associated with life-threatening diseases, was conducted by Peter Gasser and colleagues. This double-blind, placebo-controlled study administered 200 μg of LSD to 12 participants. They were also given appropriate therapeutic support throughout the process.

Researchers used the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) as a measure for anxiety at baseline and post-study. They found a significant reduction of trait anxiety (p=0.033) and state anxiety (p=0.021). A 12-month follow up indicated sustained STAI reductions. 

The significant decrease in anxiety marked by this study, supports the therapeutic potential for psilocybin mushrooms to reduce anxiety and inadvertently increase trust and sociability in people diagnosed with austism.  

Roland R Griffiths et al conducted a 2016 study on psilocybin mushrooms for treatment of depression and anxiety. 51 cancer patients who displayed symptoms of depression and anxiety were administered either a placebo-like dose or a high dose (22 or 30mg) of psilocybin. 

The GRID-HAMD rating scale, the Beck Depression Inventory, and the HADS Depression Scale were used to measure depression symptoms at baseline versus post-intervention. All post-intervention scores reflected clinically significant reductions in depression, which were sustained at a 6-month follow up. The HADS depression demonstrated the largest reduction with p<0.01. 

Average baseline scores for the HAM-A scale (anxiety), the STAI Trait Anxiety Inventory, and the POMS Total Mood Disturbance Questionnaire all experienced clinically significant reductions. Most notably, the HAM-A Anxiety test showed a significant reduction with p<0.0001.

The results of this study suggest both strong and long-term (≥12 mos.) treatment efficacy for reduction of depression and anxiety symptoms in people with ASD.

Psychedelics for the Neurobiological Abnormalities in Autism

Synaptic impairments have been regarded as one of the critical markers of ASD. A 2008 study conducted by Gary J Bassell and Stephen T Warren, investigated the role of Fragile X syndrome in autism. Their studies tagged Fragile X syndrome as the leading cause of autism. 

They reviewed how hyper-methylation of the FMR1 gene alters synaptic function and causes a loss of neural plasticity that’s dependent on protein synthesis. A 2017 study by Tian and colleagues found that FMR1-knockout mice show an impairment of synaptic strength mediated by AMPA receptors. This autism-induced impairment is also identified in human-derived samples.

In a recent 2021 study led by Natalie Hesselgrave and colleagues, a single dose of psilocybin was administered to mice. They found that psilocybin was able to stimulate synaptic strengthening mediated by AMPA receptors. In FMR1-knockout rats, this strengthening can normalize synaptic dysfunction.

The results of this study indicate that psilocybin mushrooms may help stimulate synaptic strengthening in people with autism, by mediating AMPA receptor activity. 

A 2018 study conducted by Calvin Ly and colleagues found that psychedelics promote structural and functional neural plasticity by stimulating the formation of synapses, promoting the growth of dendritic spines, and increasing dendritic arbor complexity. Dendritic spines are in essence, the limbs of a neuron. By increasing the size of these spines, more points of contact between brain cells are established. 

These findings indicate that psychedelics may restore synaptic functioning in people with ASD by increasing the size and density of dendritic spines, and thus strengthening neuronal intercommunication.

5-HT, the serotonin neurotransmitter, is involved in the neuronal development of several psychiatric and physiological conditions such as ASD and depression. Several studies, including a 2014 study conducted by Dea Adamsen and colleagues, and a 2010 study by Kazuhiko Nakamura et al, have found that individuals with ASD have lower than average 5-HT levels.  

A handful of studies, including a 2007 study by Carolyn Boylan et al, have observed that serotonin depletion in mice increases anxiety and alters social and stereotypical behaviors reflective of ASD. Compelling studies, such as a 1961 study conducted by D.X. Freedman found that the administration of LSD increases brain serotonin levels.

A 2021 study by Danilo De Gregorio and colleagues also found that LSD, a serotonergic psychedelic like psilocybin and DMT, promoted social behavior by potentiating 5-HT2A and AMPA-mediated mPFC excitatory transmission. An excitatory trasmitter produces an action potential signal in the recieving neuron, which allows cells to trasmit electrical signals toward other cells. 

These findings suggest that serotonergic psychedelics can ameliorate the serotonin deficiency often present in people with ASD and enhance neuronal communication by increasing 5-HT (serotonin) levels and potentiating medial prefrontal cortex excitatory trasmission via AMPA receptors, inadvertently increasing social behavior.

Many studies, notably a 2020 study by Alexandra C. Kirsch et al, have proven that lesions to the prefrontal (PFC) and medial frontal cortex (mPFC), instigate extensive social interaction deficits. As observed by other research, such as a 2018 study by A. C. Brumback and colleagues, individuals with ASD experience significant PFC activity reductions.

The PFC is significantly modulated by 5-HT2ARs, and thus would be highly affected by serotonergic psychedelics. A 2016 study by David A. Martin and Charles D. Nichols proved that serotonergic psychedelics directly activate transcriptional responses in the mouse mPFC via the 5-HTAR. A 2020 study by Patricia Duerler et al, found that LSD increases social adaptation by activation of the mPFC. 

These findings indicate that serotonergic psychedelics may ameliorate reduced prefrontal cortex activity, common is people with ASD, by activating medial prefrontal cortex transcriptional responses through 5-HT2AR (serotonin receptor) modulation. This would inadvertently increase social adaptation behaviors.

Anecdotal Reports

In the 1960s, research on psychedelics was ever growing. Of course, this was all stunted when psychedelics were criminalized in 1973. Before being banned, some scientists had the opportunity to conduct clinical trials on the efficacy of LSD for treatment of ASD. However, the research methods used in those studies were questionable and they raised ethical concerns. 

Today, much of the information we have on psychedelics for ASD management is anecdotal. The following are the anecdotal reports of Psychedelic Passage survey respondents who have used psychedelics to modulate their autism-related traits.

“At some point while I was regularly using psychedelics, I looked back at my life and couldn’t understand how I’d been so ignorant of myself in so many ways… It’s like at some point I snapped out of a certain spell and that was the end of many of the impinging traits of autism.

Social anxiety, blindness to self, I always felt like there was something that others “got” and I was in the dark about it, and as a result couldn’t relate to people. I was very arrogant and incredibly miserable. When psychedelics gave me a good look at myself, I cringed so hard and felt so much shame for my blindness… 

I don’t think they’re an easy fix for everyone… I think one thing that’s key is to take grounding and integration seriously. I always made sure to eat and sleep well and spent a lot of time in nature which gave me plenty of opportunity to integrate my experiences. 

Looking back, my autistic traits seem like some kind of pattern that my brain waves had become entrained to (think binaural beats) and that psychedelics helped reset some of those patterns that seem to maybe be rooted in childhood trauma for me. There’s still bits of my past that affect me today, but there’s also so much I feel I’ve fully let go of.

Obviously, this is all just my personal experience and I don’t necessarily want to encourage anyone but if someone does feel encouraged… I recommend looking at it as a long journey. Baby steps as opposed to great leaps. Deal with the surface baggage before you dive in deep.” 

-Anonymous survey respondent

“Hi, I microdose mushrooms and use ketamine quarterly. My life has been changed in so many ways and I tell everyone if they can in their state, to find facilitators. It helps me communicate my feelings, turns the noise down, stops pain, helps with nausea and textural issues.

Some people are completely against it but once you know, you can’t go back. I had open prescriptions for a terrible amount of highly addictive medications and I have been free of them for over 2 years now. 

I cannot express enough how desperately needed research is in this area. My life’s goal is to change life in the way that mine has been changed. It is truly remarkable.” -Anonymous survey respondent

“I have level 1 (autism) and I’ve tried them. Micro dosing wasn’t for me, it gave me anxiety when I wasn’t in a controlled environment. A full dose was like a brain reset and I felt generally happy for a few days following that. I’m going to go do that again today actually.” -Anonymous survey respondent

“I try to overcome my rigidity caused by autism by microdosing 1P-LSD and truffles. I suffer also from dysthymia, I feel like shrooms are better for this. 

I drink less alcohol since I did psychedelics. Never had a hangover since I started with psychedelics in late 2020 and drink less frequently. It’s been a month now since my last alcoholic beverage.”

-Anonymous survey respondent

“I wouldn’t really consider myself autistic at this point in life, I’m still eccentric, I’m sure, but the struggles and suffering I used to experience are largely gone. I did all sorts (of psychedelics), but I feel I owe most of my change to DMT, ayahuasca, and LSD.

They all were useful in different ways. I’ve experimented with low doses, but not doses low enough to be considered microdosing… I think one of the biggest insights leading to change was the realization that my mind is not reality and living within it inevitably leads to suffering and that I can instead look beyond it to live in the here and now. 

Sounds simple but I grew up fully living there (not in the here and now) and I thought that was the place to be and that it’d lead to intelligence, but ultimately lead to being completely blinded to the bigger picture. I honestly do think everyone would benefit from the psychedelic experience so long as it’s done right.”  -Anonymous survey respondent

Discussion

The results of our research provide strong evidence for the potential therapeutic benefits that psychedelics may offer to individuals with autism. Serotonergic psychedelics like LSD, and psilocybin have been clinically proven to effectively treat the co-occurring disorders with autism.

More specifically, many clinical trials have evidenced their efficacy in treating depression, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety, with results that are sustainable for at least 12 months. We’ve also found that psychedelics target common traits of autism by reducing neuroticism, increasing extraversion, openness, trust, and feelings of closeness to others. 

The neurobiological studies we’ve reviewed also support their potential efficacy. Psychedelics can restore AMPA-mediated synaptic function by promoting the growth of dendritic spines and by increasing dendritic arbor complexity. 

Commonly in individuals with autism, there is insufficient 5-HT stimulation, which psychedelics may remediate as they bind to 5-HT receptors, increase serotonin production, and thus produce more receptors. The production of these new receptors establishes very physical neurological tools for serotonin to continue being produced at the same rate, without being under the influence of psychedelics. 

Since serotonin depletion is attributed to anxiety and atypical social behavior, increasing 5-HT levels would enhance sociability and in theory, counteract these traits. By activating transcriptional responses in the mPFC, psychedelics could effectively restore function to these regions, inadvertently enhancing social adaptation and involvement. 

We should note that all of the studies we reviewed today employed some form of therapeutic support to participants throughout the process. One of the biggest indicators of success and  longevity of benefits with psychedelic treatments is the level of support received throughout.

Preparation by an experienced facilitator, guidance during the ceremony, and integration post-journey, are vital for establishing physically safe and emotionally secure foundations. If you or someone you know has autism and are looking to journey with psychedelics, there’s a few considerations to make note of. 

Always communicate if you have a medical history of seizures. Those who are predisposed to epileptic episodes have an increased likelihood of experiencing adverse side effects with psychedelics. 

Also note that because people with autism have a higher predisposition to psychosis and/or schizophrenia compared to neurotypical people, psychedelics may induce these disorders in those with a family or medical history of it. Always communicate genetic predispositions with your facilitator so that all necessary safety measures can be adequately accounted for.

Closing Off

Are you interested in exploring how it feels to be connected? Here, at Psychedelic Passage, our 5-week program offers the support you need to venture through the space of psychedelics in a safe and conscious way. Our highly qualified facilitators will guide you through preparation, ceremony day, and integration.

We understand that everyone’s healing journey is personal and unique, that’s why we prioritize personal autonomy every step of the way. With us, you’ll have the time and space to curate an experience that feels completely authentic and tailored to you and your needs.

If you’d like to get connected with one of our facilitators, we empower you to book a consultation with us. Of course, we imagine that there are still many lingering questions on your mind. In that case, head on over to our resources page for an extensive bibliotheca of informative articles like this one. That’s all for now, our fellow psychonauts. Safe journeying!

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About Us

We (Nick & Jimmy) are spiritually oriented psychedelic guides who facilitate in-person ceremonial psychedelic experiences with an emphasis on harm reduction all across the U.S. We foster transformational journeys through the exploration of consciousness, which we believe to be a fundamental human right.

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