Autism is a largely mysterious neurodevelopmental disorder that usually manifests in children before the age of 3 as delays in their ability to socially interact and communicate.
There are actually several types of autism, which are referred to as “autism spectrum disorders.” All these disorders are characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social interactions, and by restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.
Autistic children usually appear to completely lack interest in other people and seem to have enormous difficulty learning basic social skills. Signs of the disorder are often apparent in the first few months of life, as many autistic children seem indifferent to other people, not making eye contact or participating in social interactions that healthy children naturally engage in.
In recent years, there has been a large increase in the number of diagnosed cases of autism throughout the world. The reasons for this are heavily debated by physicians, researchers and parents with autistic children. The U.S. Center for Disease Control estimates that the prevalence of autism disorders to be somewhere between one out of every 500 births to one out of every 166 births.
Conventional medicine has little to offer people suffering from autism, and the standard medical treatments are largely ineffective.
The standard treatment for autism generally involves a combination of therapies, including occupational and physical therapy, behavior modification, communication therapy, dietary modifications and a wide array of powerful but largely ineffective medications, including antidepressants, tranquilizers, stimulants and antipsychotic medications.
Most people with autism undergoing traditional therapies show little improvement, and new treatments are desperately needed.
One promising new avenue of research that may one day provide treatment for adult autism involves the use of the psychedelic drug MDMA, or “ecstasy,” within the context of a psychotherapeutic setting, which has been shown to produce lasting feelings of empathy in some people.
Many people who have used MDMA report increased sociability and strong feelings of empathy that last long after the psychoactive effect of the substance wears off. There has been substantial interest in using MDMA as a possible treatment for less severe cases of adult autism, because two of the hallmarks of the disorder are an inability to communicate socially and a lack of empathy.
David Jentsch at the UCLA Center for Autism found that MDMA enhanced the transmission of a key neurochemical in the brain called “vasopressin,” which is known to help mediate sociability. In another study, by G.J. Dumont and colleagues at Radboud University in the Netherlands, researchers found that MDMA increases levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of love and bonding.
The Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has also gathered together numerous anecdotal reports from people with a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome, who have found MDMA to be helpful in their learning to cope more effectively in social situations, and enough reports have now been compiled to warrant further investigation.
A number of people with high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome have reported improvements after taking MDMA outside of research contexts. MDMA shows promise for treating autism spectrum disorders, as the effects of MDMA that increase empathy and enhance communication are precisely the abilities that autism tends to degrade.
MAPS is reviewing proposals from autism researchers for a pilot study using MDMA as a possible treatment for Asperger's syndrome and autism spectrum disorders. MAPS will offer a grant of $10,000 for protocol development expenses to run this pilot study.
If you or someone you know has heard of MDMA having either positive or negative effects on symptoms of autism spectrum disorders or Asperger’s syndrome, MAPS would like to hear from you. Please contact MAPS Lead Clinical Research Associate Berra Yazar-Klosinski, Ph.D., at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you have any information about this.
To learn more about the research, go to the MAPS website.
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