Some researchers are considering a pilot treatment that involves MDMA, the active psychoactive ingredient in ecstasy pills, to help adults diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) ooze out anxiety.  ASD adults typically report difficulties in bonding with other people and often feel nervous in a social setting. Though illegal in the United States, MDMA has been recently explored for psychotherapeutic purposes with promising results reported in battling addiction or post traumatic stress disorder. If it receives approval – and there’s a great deal of paperwork that needs to be filled before they get the green light – this would make it the first MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of social anxiety in autistic adults.

MDMA and autism reserach

Image: Autism Daily

The team – a join venture between the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – published the proposed methods and study rationale in  Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological PsychiatryWhile there’s a potential for addiction and abuse, in small doses and under a controlled setting MDMA is considered safe. Somewhat similar in structure and psychoactive effects to amphetamines and mescaline, MDMA reportedly makes people feel less vulnerable and more open. In one survey of users, 72% reported that the drugs made them “more comfortable in social settings,” and 12% further noted that this effect persisted for more than two years.

People with an ASD often find social situations very difficult. There are so many social rules that people without an ASD learn instinctively, but people with an ASD often have to work at learning these rules. Some have more trouble integrating than others, depending on how severe the diagnosis is. The most severely affected individuals seem aloof and uninterested in people. Others desire contact, but fail to understand the reciprocal nature of normal social interaction.  It can often be confusing and cause anxiety as many social rules are unwritten and not spoken about. This is where MDMA might come in handy –  administered infrequently in clinical settings – to ease anxiety and promote productive social bonding.

The drugs prescribed so far for anxiety retrieval don’t seem to work that well for ASD adults. “Conventional anti-anxiety medications, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), MAOIs, and benzodiazepines, lack substantial clinical effectiveness in autistic adults,” write the authors. 

There’s reason to believe MDMA might work. Alicia Danforth, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology with a focus on psychedelic research, published a research study on adults with autism who have self-administered ecstasy. Of course, since the people in question purchased the drugs illegally and took them in an uncontrolled setting one has to keep in mind that the results didn’t pass the rigors of an FDA-approved clinical trial. However, Danforth reports  positive and promising results out of her survey study. Over half of the people she interviewed spontaneously made reports in improvement in social anxiety.