Autism on Acid (Book Review)
This post originally appeared on Blossom Analysis.
Autism on Acid (How LSD Helped Me Understand, Navigate, Alter & Appreciate My Autistic Perceptions) is an amazingly personal book written by Aaron Paul Orsini and documents his transformational experience with a variety of LSD dosages and how they have helped him in his struggles with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The book can be best seen as a case-study and an invitation for more research to be done. That being said, it’s an incredible case study and one that under four hours (do get the audiobook Aaron narrates himself) will impact not only your mind, it will also touch your heart.
Summary & Review
Aaron was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ADS) at the age of 23. Four years later, at the age of 27, he had his first Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) trip. This book documents his experience of living with ADS, discovering LSD, and learning to better manage his condition. Or in other words, it will explain the opening statement:
“[W]hen LSD met my ASD, I experienced incomparable relief for — and, in some sense, a near-total resolution of — my struggles with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
Chapter 1 – Me Before LSD
Emotional awareness and emphatic access are two traits that people with ASD have trouble experiencing (to a varying degree, it’s a spectrum). Social interactions aren’t natural and fun, they are more often draining and confusing. Aaron recounts how he specifically experienced the world from this perspective. For him, social information and seamless interaction were out of reach.
“I am in no way joking when I say that before LSD, I felt more closely related to a robot or robotic learning algorithm than I did to a human being.”
For more background, you can find the DSM-V (psychologists/psychiatrists handbook of sorts) definition of ASD here.
Chapter 2 – Autism on Acid
The diagnosis of ASD came very late and Aaron battled with depressive symptoms for a long time before his diagnosis helped him better understand himself. But it wasn’t enough, and after the death of a close friend, Aaron retreated and bought a train ticket west.
His first trip was with a tab of LSD of around 150-250 micrograms. The trip gave him access to a world he had never experienced before. A world in which he could make connections. Instead of talking to a person, he was talking with a person. He could, for the first time, understand the nuance and detail of social interactions.
“In the initial hours of the experience, as the LSD began to take effect, I felt more and more connected… with the trees and breeze and sunlight around me. I experienced a deep moment of engagement. Yes. A moment of connection, with nature, with thoughts of my parents, my family, friends, and the whole of the human family and the broader web of life. And yes I know it sounds cliche to say but I was awash in a sense of deep, deep love for so many aspects of life.”
Aaron does a very good job of also describing the (legal) risks of taking an illegal drug, and discourages anyone from doing the same.
Chapter 3 – After the First Dose
This newfound access to emotions wasn’t just amazing, it also opening him up to challenging and intense emotions. But as he learned more about himself, he discovered the nuance of emotions.
“It was as if LSD had unclogged a lifetime of emotional constipation, and there I was, sifting through my mound of unprocessed mental sh*t. But the odd part about this was that, with the assistance of LSD, It was as if LSD had unclogged a lifetime of emotional constipation, and there I was, sifting through my mound of unprocessed mental sh*t. But the odd part about this was that, with the assistance of LSD, this type of inner emotional work seemed not very burdensome.this type of inner emotional work seemed not very burdensome.”
Chapter 4 – Integration
The LSD experienced needed to be integrated into his daily life and Aaron recounts how the ASD lens is much different from average. And that until his 27th year, socializing was on the bottom of his priority list.
“The closest I can come to describing what it’s like to have an ASD-affected brain would be to compare it to relying on a mailroom clerk who receives all of the envelopes in the mail but only ever seems to have no clue as to which envelopes ought to be opened first.”
Chapter 5 – Acceptance
Through his experience with LSD, Aaron was able to accept himself, to become his own best friend. In this chapter, and in later chapters, he recognizes that the ASD lens is just one of the ways of seeing the world, and a way that he does still values. One lens is not better than the other, they are just different perspectives.
“By alternating between the lenses of ASD and LSD, I gained an intimate understanding of not only a new way of seeing, but also, critically, a wholly new and novel perspective on the ways that I had always seen. I became aware of the ways in which I was aware, and unaware, of various aspects of the ever-available stimulus. In this way, I became capable of seeing my own biases, and conditioned patterns of belief, and so many other aspects of self that had become so familiar and ingrained that they had likewise become more or less invisible to me in my day-to-day perception.”
Aaron makes the great analogy to people who are deaf. A cochlear implant is awesome, but it’s also great to be able to turn it off when you’re riding the subway.
Chapter 6 – Immersion Therapy
One of the reasons for writing the book is to inspire researchers and therapists. Aaron’s experience may serve as a template of sorts that they can try and validate or update with a larger sample size.
Through experimentation, Aaron has found that 20-50 micrograms works best as ‘LSD-Assisted Immersion Therapy’. This is more than a microdose (sub-perceptual, usually 5-10 µg) and less than a full/psychedelic/macro dose (>100 µg). This dosage helped him most with social learning and development, without being too distracting/psychedelic.
“It was a variable dose range that seemed to work well for me; a range that would decrease my fear and increase my perceptivity but still allow me to re-root and more readily integrate insights into aspects of selfhood in real-time.”
He followed the 3-day (1 on, 2 off) protocol as proposed by James Fadiman (The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide). The rest of the chapter also describes the usefulness of other dosages (macro, micro), how to prepare it, and the preparation he undertook.
Aaron describes the LSD-Assisted Immersion Therapy as a place in which he could discover and change his conditioning maps, his routines and (unhelpful) (mental) routines.
“This process of use-testing and editing my conditioned behavioral responses allowed me to (1) recognize patterns of behavior, (2) consider potential root causes of the behavior (3) consider potential modifications to said behavior, and (4) test and integrate the behavior change IN THE MOMENT.”
Chapter 7 – What Now?
This chapter can be best described as a call-to-action, a thank you to LSD, and encouragement for more research to be done.
“LSD let me see & comprehend complicated social behaviors. LSD let me feel feelings and deeply sense the feelings of other living beings. From a single dose I woke up, from a numb and deafened black and white life, obscured by memorized maps. I fell in love with the dynamic full-color, heart-tingling, sensational, birational, expressive world of human beings being social. So – pretty please – with an fMRI image on top, please consider rescheduling so we can more readily research LSD.” (printed in a very large font)
Chapter 8 – LSD Research, Then & Now
The research on LSD and ASD is still very limited. Aaron has made available all his (up-to-date) notes and links on this website. Much of the research is from the 1960s, and good new studies have yet to be done. In the book, Aaron quotes four papers:
- The Use of Psychedelic Agents With Autistic Schizophrenic Children (Mogar & Aldrich, 1969)
- Identification of Neural Connectivity Signatures of Autism Using Machine Learning (Deshpande et al, 2013)
- Neural Correlates of The LSD Experience Revealed by Multimodal Neuroimaging (Carhart-Harris et al, 2016)
- LSD Acutely Impairs Fear Recognition & Enhances Emotional Empathy & Sociality (Dolder et al, 2016)
Chapter 9 – An Open Letter to Science
The final chapter highlights the resurgence of research being done with psychedelics. Aaron cheers this on (and donates the proceeding of the book to MAPS and Heffter).
“If I had a wish, I would wish that neuroimaging studies could continue to provide insight into what exactly happens during the psychedelic experience. I would wish that such studies could continue to reveal not only the neurological underpinnings of both psychedelic and autistic experiences, but also, in turn, the neurological underpinnings of the broader human experience. Because I strongly believe that by studying psychedelics and autism, we advance our perspective on the formation of perspectives, period. And I for one find that to be an exciting prospect indeed.”