Autism and Psychedelics – An Interview with Aaron Orsini

Aaron, a man with brown hair and a beard looks down, smiling, next to a book shelf with his book Autism on Acid displayed
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Aaron Paul Orsini is the author of Autism On Acid: How LSD Helped Me Understand, Navigate, Alter & Appreciate My Autistic Perceptions. He is also the co-founder of the Autistic Psychedelic Community, a peer support group for neurodivergent individuals interested in discussing psychedelics and building connection with others with similar experiences in terms of personal sensory processing. He has just finished editing and publishing his second book on the subject, entitled Autistic Psychedelic, a neurodiversity-minded anthology of psychedelic essays & survey responses that is now available via www.AutisticPsychedelic.com

 

Leia: What is your background, and how do you identify yourself?

Aaron: I grew up in the midwest of the United States and went to college pursuing a degree in multimedia arts. I am fascinated by different forms of creative expression tools, and I gravitated toward animation specifically because it encompasses all of these different layers of expression, such as music and language. I found a utility in being able to communicate and express and understand the world around me through these mediums, and that also informed my professional pursuits.

 

Leia: You learned that you were autistic later in life, right? 

Aaron: Yeah, that’s correct. I was diagnosed at the age of 23. I had been dealing with issues surrounding depression and anxiety, and other energetic issues like not being able to simply get up and out of bed and get tasks accomplished over the course of many years. I was fortunate enough to participate in plenty of talk therapy over that period of time, and it wasn’t until the age of 23 that a psychotherapist gave me a questionnaire and concluded that autism might be a factor in some of these depressive or anxious or overwhelmed states.

But it took a couple of years, and it still will take probably more years to continue to understand how I relate to that diagnosis.

There are many different ways that autism can be self-identified. I personally choose to identify as an autistic rather than a person with autism. That’s something of a controversial subject in many spaces — across language barriers, etc. — but for simplicity’s sake, I identify as an autistic.

To provide a similar example, someone within deaf culture may feel more comfortable self-identifying as deaf as opposed to “a person with a hearing impairment”, even though there was a time in which it may have been considered offensive to define individuals by what may have then been exclusively seen as an impairment.

As time has gone on and sub-cultures have formed around certain variances in processing, however, autistics within these sub-cultures have adopted the outlook that autism could perhaps be seen as a neurotype; a particular mode of cognitive processing that can present challenges in certain contexts and remarkable advantages in other contexts. In this way, there are aspects that overlap between deaf culture and autistic culture where there is somewhat of a reclamatory pride in identifying as such. Thus, I personally make the choice to identify within autistic culture as an autistic.

 

Leia: What was your first impactful experience with a psychedelic like?

Aaron: The experience that I wrote about in my first book was with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). That day I was in a forest setting, and during the initial portion of that experience, I was on my own. I had some other people there with me in my periphery but I spent most of that first experience on my own with my own thoughts and my own reflections. And I believe that this first experience, even as an autistic, maps over the general psychedelic experiences of unity and connection — to nature, family, grander aspects of existence, etc. — that others of any neurotype might report.

But the most remarkable component of my experience was sometime after the peak when I encountered some other individuals — after leaving that more isolative space — and had what felt like what I’ve come to know to be an empathogenic drug effect; a very deep and immediate access to my inner feeling states, and perhaps a more intense mirroring of the feeling states of others as well.

And that specific empathogenic (engender empathy within) or entactogenic (engender feeling within) drug property is what has inspired my ongoing meta-analysis of preexisting research. Through ongoing collaborations, I hope to be able to help pinpoint — from a neuropsychopharmacological perspective — the mechanistic underpinnings that shape and influence these noteworthy fluctuations in autistic psychedelic processing.

Based on what I’ve learned through this ongoing deep dive into academic publications, I’ve learned that there are still many unknowns and debates happening in terms of how to define autism in a more universally agreed-upon way. Similarly, we’ve only just begun to understand what could very well be a long journey toward comprehending the massive complexity of psychedelic pharmacokinetics. And so as we await the evidence-based understandings, there’s one thing that can be done, and that’s the gathering of subjective and qualitative accounts, which is exactly what we’ve done with this next book, Autistic Psychedelic — a book that includes first-hand psychedelic stories and survey responses from more than forty neurodivergent contributors.

 

Leia: I look forward to reading that book, and I loved your first one, Autism on Acid. What do you think of the research on psychedelics for autistic people or people with autism?

Aaron: Well, I believe, in most recent years, the most noteworthy study was the work done by Dr. Alicia Danforth with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). That study investigated whether MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could help autistic individuals manage their social anxiety.

I have also had experiences with MDMA that lead me to believe that this approach would be quite effective, especially in the context that is still being worked towards — a context in which these drug experiences can take place in the presence of others, especially close loved ones or friends. That would create a scenario with “clay on the table” so to speak; other human beings that could present more immediate opportunities for that individual to overcome social challenges while in a more expansive, entactogenic, empathogenic, and fear-reduced state.

I personally didn’t get much out of talk therapy sessions because a lot of my therapeutic outcomes resulted from my ability to take interest in the person opposite me while my inner feeling state awareness was dialed up. In conventional therapeutic settings, the act of asking how the therapist is doing is somewhat of a fruitless endeavor. They’re almost disallowed from divulging such personal information. Therefore, the conventional psychotherapy model is inherently limiting in terms of how much it allows someone to “flex” the muscles related to interpersonal growth and engagement.

If you look back at the 1960s there was also the work of Dr. Fisher with autistic youths. Obviously, the field of psychiatry has evolved quite a bit in terms of understandings about both these substances and these conditions since that research. There were many ethical issues, such as lack of consent with nonverbal individuals, and that is of great concern in any context.

These are topics I generally don’t want to even really weigh in on because it’s so far removed from the work that I’m doing in terms of pursuing the discovery of the self-reported benefits and challenges experienced by adult autistics utilizing psychedelics in an intentional, consensual context. In the simplest terms, I’m not involved as a parent of an autistic. And I don’t want to make it seem as though I understand the struggles of any parent or any other autistic. I don’t. I try to just speak to my own personal experience and listen to the words of others as best as I can.

So, yes. As of now, the true focus of my work is discovery, and what outcomes can arise when risks are mitigated, and psychedelics are safely offered to consenting adults who understand the nature of what they’re undertaking in an intentional context.

 

Leia: Thank you for mentioning past studies of psychedelics and autistic people and for bringing up this issue of consent. I do think it’s important to keep in mind the history so we can be informed enough not to repeat it. You founded the Autistic Psychedelic Community, could you tell us more about that?

Aaron: The Autistic Psychedelic Community was created to be exactly that: a community that works together. And within our meetings and online discussion forums, we mainly rely upon the personal experiences of one another to serve to inform a majority of the wisdom exchanged. It’s also unique in that we interact across generations. We have persons in our group as old as 75 years old.

I didn’t live in a multi-generational household. And so to receive insights from someone who has lived another 50 more years of autism is also quite instructive. So yes, we go through a community-driven discovery model to reveal not only what sorts of outcomes people are experiencing through intentional psychedelic use but also what sorts of novel solutions they’ve discovered in terms of non-drug approaches to wellness as well. When enough people get together who are trying to solve the same problem in the same space, there’s a natural synergy. And it’s a model that’s maybe already happened elsewhere but I could see how the Internet could empower people to solve other issues as well.

Let’s say for example people are trying to better navigate something like endometriosis. With the interconnected nature of the Internet, there’s this new ability for persons impacted to not only leverage the intelligence of professionals and clinicians but to also come together to ask each other basic questions like “What does this or that cost?” or “What types of questions will I be asked?” or “What types of questions should I ask my clinicians?” — things like that. And the ability for those with especially rare conditions to find one another online, and interact in a more direct way, is tremendously helpful for more than just the pure information exchanged.

What I find to be quite charming is when I see people return to offer support to others as well even after they have resolved many of their own issues. Because being of service and providing support to others is quite therapeutic as well. And some of our elders hang around just to simply offer guidance and support. And sometimes there are days in which they return to once again need support from the group. So it feels much less hierarchical in this regard.

 

Leia: I relate. I helped to co-start a peer-led psychedelic integration circle for people with eating disorders and/or body dysmorphia, because I struggled with both of these things for a long time. I know it’s not quite the same as the Autistic Psychedelic Community, but I think there are some similarities. For me, being able to both offer as well as receive guidance from others has been huge. In integrating psychedelic experiences, it just feels different to be with people who understand what I’ve gone through versus being in a group of folks who don’t have the lived experience. Those spaces didn’t feel as welcoming to me in the past, so I couldn’t be as open or go as deep.

Aaron: Yeah, and that speaks to a constant unlearning that I think is somewhat synergistic with psychedelics as well — there is work involved in unlearning the concept of “disorder” and instead realizing that some of the more challenging aspects of autism — especially those related to hyper- or hyposensitivities — can instead be seen as very real strengths in certain contexts.

I’m reminded of the ways in which someone like Stan Grof was exploring how the container for psychedelic experiences was just as influential on the outcome as the psychological or physiological state of the person undergoing the psychedelic session. In much the same way, the cultural container in which we’re receiving diagnosis is going to impact our outcomes and perceptions of our outcomes just as strongly.

In this particular case, in a roundabout way, even though Zoom may not seem like it is, it in fact is a cultural container of sorts. As a digital interface, Zoom shapes cultural norms within our meeting space.

In our online community, for example, there are individuals who might have issues with auditory overstimulation. With something like Zoom, they can fully control the volume of the voices coming at them; they can also filter out background noise automatically, which is a technology that some people might otherwise only be able to utilize with wearable devices. Online platforms also allow for people to type thoughts if they have difficulty forming spoken words, or read typed thoughts when they would otherwise face challenges with interpreting heard speech. So these sorts of augmented reality layers are also incredibly enabling for a range of different intelligences and individuals with a range of sensory processing issues.

Many of us in the community also have a predisposition for being able to retain focus for sustained durations on specific topics. And so it’s quite fascinating to have a group of autistics focusing their intense focus, together, on solving problems that are facing autistics. This is an especially powerful experience for some of us in that many of us are acclimated to feeling as though we may be the problem in a given social space. And so to instead feel united as solvents is quite powerful.

 

Leia: That is powerful. What do you wish more people knew about autism and psychedelics?

Aaron: I think that there is an inherent gap in the ability to understand and imagine what it’s like to live through either of them. In other words: if someone has not had a psychedelic experience — or if someone has never experienced the world through the lens of autism — it may be quite difficult for them to be able to imagine what those experiences might be like.

Many aspects of autism specifically might be difficult to describe because there is no real point of contrast for the individual attempting to describe what may be, for them, the only lens they’ve ever known. In this way, there’s no substitute for direct experience. And I would say that the next best thing to direct experience is open, sincere, and attentive listening.

And there are examples in our upcoming book wherein neurodivergent individuals attempt to describe how their default mode of processing works. One particular individual describes how they interpret the world of stimulation through the filtration of their natural synesthesia; perceiving spoken language as colors and other visuals first, as a default mode of processing. And then there’s this incredibly complicated process that you can only maybe imagine wherein this individual is tasked with hearing speech as colors, then reverse translating those colors back into words, that can then be further translated into a spoken response.

In this particular example, the individual sharing their story is expressing how psychedelics enabled them to trust their intuition and to be able to interpret the language of color and respond and trust that information as it arrives to them in their default mode of processing. Even as I’m explaining this, I’m wondering if this even makes any sense. But to the person exploring this, it does make sense, literally. And they emerged capable of trusting their alternate mode of perception as a result.

In the same way, I think a lot of autistic people are tasked with having to come to an understanding that their interpretation of “consensus reality” is merely relative, and always will be. This lesson is also something I think that psychedelic users are greeted with very strongly: reality is relative, and the notion or faith in “consensus reality” is a bit of a cognitive shortcut that can be quite detrimental in certain contexts.

If someone has not had the lived experience of being on a psychedelic or of being a neurodivergent individual, then they are more than likely not going to fully understand the neurodivergent experience. What’s more, they might end up interpreting any explanation in a way that further obscures their understanding of the experience and the experiencer. And so perhaps if we could all just arrive to the understanding that everyone’s experience of reality diverges from everyone else’s experience of reality, then these labels and questions of “Whose perceptions diverge from who?” and “Who is typical?” and “Who is not typical?” would also quickly dissolve into that expanded awareness.

The more we become aware, the more we might similarly become aware that ambiguous inputs may be the only real foundation upon which a lot of our supposedly solid understandings are built.

Anyhow. I’m in an interesting position attempting to use words to express some of these ineffable experiences. By the time I double-back to try to make sure I didn’t miss any holes in what I said, I just discover still yet more holes.

 

Leia: This whole thing is a whole lot of (w)holes, isn’t it?

Aaron: Yeah, and the English language could use a software update, probably.

Leia: Absolutely! I’m thinking about the work of Robin Wall Kimerer and her book Braiding Sweetgrass; I learned that the English language is about 70% nouns while the Potawatomi language is heavy on verbs and actions. Life is in motion, and Potawatomi indicates that. English is all about persons, places, or things, and what is versus what happens.

Aaron: Yeah, and that goes back to one of your previous questions about how I identify as autistic for ease and simplicity, and what feels like something of solidarity with others who might exist in a somewhat marginalized group. At the same point, I think the more-long-winded or articulate version of my identification would be to identify as “the awareness that comes through me after passing through something that might be referred to as autistic filtering in certain social and task-oriented contexts, with certain sleep/diet/exercise patternings present, in tandem with endogenous and exogenous chemicals present in my bio-electric systems.” But instead, I just say I’m autistic. It’s simpler.

But really, I’m just another being being.

 

Leia: Thank you! I agree. We are all humans, being.

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