MDMA and Autism — Respite and Growth
As an adult living with a diagnosis of autism, I’ve struggled with symptoms of the condition as far back as I can remember. From repetitive stimming behaviours when I started attending school, to sensory processing issues in my teens, I’ve always seen the world through a different lens to the neurotypical population. I get overwhelmed and fixated on a world that’s confusing and loud and that just never stops, and I have to use a lot of effort and energy to push through that and live my life. It’s a constant drain, something I have to fight through.
That said, I spent a great number of years wondering if I was really autistic, or just coming up with excuses. Sure I had trouble tuning out background noise, but maybe that’s just how the world was for everyone. If you’ve not experienced a non autistic brain as a reference point, how can you truly know something in your experience of the world is non standard?
It wasn’t until I tried taking MDMA in my mid twenties that I really started to understand the place Autism inhabits in my life.
MDMA, typically taken as a recreational party drug, is illegal in many countries in the world, including my own. While its primary use recreationally is to flood the brain with feel good chemicals and create feelings of increased openness and empathy, clinical Trials in the US suggest that it activates many of the same areas of the brain that function in non standard ways in autistic individuals.
On a surface level viewing, it’s easy to see how a drug that induces feelings of positive empathy might be beneficial to individuals on the autistic spectrum in a dry, abstract sense. For me, it was a world changing experience, not just during the trip itself but for months afterwards.
The biggest thing I immediately noticed upon reaching the high brought on by a recreational MDMA dose was an instant quieting of the world. For someone who has lived years with sensory overload issues, I found myself able to walk through a crowded room, tuning out the background noise and not feel overwhelmed. I could smell an orange without feeling dizzy, I could see a crowd as individual people not a chaotic mass of noise, I could eat foods with more than one texture, I could wear clothing with tags in the neck. I could mentally sort noises by importance and tune out the things I didn’t need to focus on. For the first time ever, I was able to experience what a quiet world is actually like. I was able to sit down and just enjoy the sound of a world at rest.
While these aspects of respite from autism were strongest during the high from the drug, they persisted for almost 48 hours after the high had ended, allowing me to enjoy a few days of a world finally quiet. They gave me the quiet space to reflect on my mind, and to appreciate how much I have to push through in life.
I was initially distressed by the realisation that I would have to go back to a world of sensory overload once the drug was out of my system. A friend helpfully got me to see that conversely, until then I’d lived my whole life not knowing I could ever get respite from sensory overload and other autistic spectrum symptoms. Rather than focus on it being sad the world would get loud again, I should be glad I now know I can theoretically have moments of respite in the future.
I know a brain on MDMA is not the same as a sober neurotypical brain, but it became a mental reference point. It became something I could hold on to. As an adult with Autism I had always heard descriptions of how my brain worked and comparatively how a non autistic brain worked, but getting to have a day where those weird abnormalities of my brain were gone put into focus just how real my symptoms are.
Less immediately apparent, but arguably much more important in my life, are the changes that stuck around weeks and months post MDMA usage rather than merely days.
Firstly, my willingness to open up about how I feel, as well as starting conversations in general with people, increased dramatically. I expected that during the high itself, a desire to talk to everyone and make everyone my new best friend. I did not expect a long term increase in ability to communicate with others.
I grew up, like many people with Autism, somewhat locked in my own head. I went years refusing to open up to my own family in spite of their actively supportive nature, and tried to burden any issues in life on my own shoulders. I knew how overwhelming I found these problems, and I expected them to stress my family the same way (They’re neurotypical, so probably not). I went well into my adulthood not being proactively communicative with those I grew up with, even when I actively needed help.
In the months since taking MDMA, I’ve found myself going out of my way to see how my family are doing. I’ve gone out of my way to start small talk conversations with them, and not ones pre planned with a flow chart. I’ve gone to my parents with things that worry me and asked for their advice, as adults I know I can trust and be open with. I’ve started really communicating with them in a meaningful way.
I’ve also found I suddenly have a visual imagination for the abstract. As a child I played with toys by lining them up in neat orderly scenes, or my repeating storylines I had already seen on TV, rather than imagining or picturing new narratives of my own invention. Since taking MDMA, I’ve found myself able to visualise the abstract, to create art of non literal things, and able to draw facial proportions without looking at a reference image. I can just suddenly picture things, something I never really knew how to do before.
Now, when I read books, I actually picture the things described in the words rather than just analytically reading and processing the words. I actually get visual imaginations of the events.
I’ve been able to shut out the mentally addictive pull of obsessively refreshing social media, which has freed up so much of my head in a given day.
Lastly, I realised how thankful I am to be autistic, at least in one area of my life. I realised how terrifyingly quiet the world actually is as a result of taking MDMA, and how much or my willingness to be alone is thanks to living with Autism.
The world itself is quiet, and that quiet can be terrifying to experience alone. Me? I live in a world where there’s always low level sound, senses blasted, a lot happening. When you live life in static, it’s hard to ever feel isolated and alone. I like being able to get respite from autism when I have company to share that respite with. I would not want to be neurotypical when alone. It just seems so unbelievably lonely.
While MDMA is illegal in many countries, I honestly believe it has had a lasting impact on my life as an adult living with Autism. I hope the medical community one day realises how useful a tool this could be for the world. It’s changed my world, knowing I can get a little mental quiet and a better ability to explain my world every now and then.
Considering Autism has no medicinal treatment options, knowing the one thing that helps me is illegal is frustrating as all hell.