People with autism are more likely than those without to develop social anxiety (Bejerot: 2014). Meanwhile, current anti-anxiety medications and therapeutic approaches are often ineffective for these people, and there are currently no FDA-approved treatments specifically for adults with autism and social anxiety (Georgiou: 2018). Thus, potential new treatments are worthwhile considering and, as research is now showing, especially those involving MDMA-assisted therapy.
MDMA, or 3.4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is a psychoactive substance known to increase people’s capacity to talk openly about themselves and their relationships without intervention of social pressures and conditioning. Early research on the substance’s effects noted that in controlled settings, people otherwise suffering from chronic social anxiety seemed notably less anxious and fearful.
This was noted as particularly useful for the success of psychotherapeutic treatments for conditions such as social anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress disorder and depression. By feeling more comfortable approaching their trauma without being overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions, patients thus have an increased likelihood of being able to confront, and eventually resolve their underlying problems (Danforth: 2016).
Despite these promising findings however, restrictions placed on MDMA in 1986 made it difficult to conduct further research into its benefits in treating psychological issues. This meant that until recently, knowledge on the efficacy of MDMA-assisted treatments for autism came from anecdotal evidence in uncontrolled settings. A recent survey looking at the self-reported effects of MDMA usage in individuals with autism found that of 150 respondents, 91% who had used MDMA experienced “increased feelings of empathy and connectedness”, with 86% reporting more “ease of communication”. On top of this, 72% of those who had used MDMA reported “more comfort in social settings”, with 77% reporting it “easier than usual to talk to others” (ibid.).
Since this survey however, a small clinical trial looking specifically at the effects of MDMA administered as a part of psychotherapy yielded similar results. For this study, 12 autistic adults with severe social anxiety were randomized to receive MDMA or a placebo in two eight-hour psychotherapy sessions in controlled clinical settings. These double-blinded sessions were taken around a month apart followed by three non-drug psychotherapy sessions (Danforth: 2018).
Using the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale to measure the participants’ social anxiety and social phobia after treatment, the researchers noted that those given MDMA as a part of therapy saw their social anxiety points reduced by 44.1 on average, whereas those on the placebo saw reductions of just 19.3 (Dodgson: 2018). These positive results have encouraged further research into the possibilities of MDMA-assisted therapy for autistic individuals, with current targets aiming for the treatment to be available on prescription in the US by 2021 (Lennon: 2019).
To conclude, MDMA-assisted therapy is showing promising signs of being an effective treatment for social anxiety in autistic adults. With both self-reported cases and early clinical trials demonstrating positive results, further research is underway to understand more about the substance’s potential to improve outcomes of an otherwise difficult-to-treat condition.
Bejerot, Susanne: El Sevier Psychiatry Research
Georgiou, Aristos: Newsweek
Danforth, Alicia L. et al. (2016): El Sevier
Danforth, Alicia L. et al. (2018): Springer Link
Dodgson, Lindsay: Insider
Lennon, Annie: Labroots