This is a guest post from Rachel Nuwer (@RachelNuwer), an award-winning science journalist who regularly contributes to the New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American, and many other publications. Her reporting for the New York Times broke the news globally about the MDMA Phase III clinical trial and was highlighted by me, Michael Pollan, and Ezra Klein, among others. In 2022, Nuwer was among the inaugural recipients of the Ferriss–UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowship. She holds masters degrees in applied ecology and in science journalism. Her first book, Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, took her to a dozen countries to investigate the multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade.
What follows is an excerpt from her new book, I Feel Love: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Fractured World.
One group of people who are particularly at risk of missing out on social benefits—and who serve as a sort of canary in the coal mine for the insidious effects of increasing disconnection—are autistic individuals.
Autistic adults are more likely to experience high levels of loneliness than their neurotypical peers. While 7 percent of the general adult U.S. population meets the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, one in four autistic adults do. Autistic people are also four times more likely to suffer from depression and eleven times more likely to have suicidal thoughts—problems that frequently both stem from and exacerbate social isolation—and they are 2.5 times as likely to die early.
Despite the serious setbacks that many people on the spectrum face due to living in a society that discriminates against those who are different, social anxiety, loneliness, and lack of connection are not inevitable parts of being autistic. According to a 2022 meta-analysis of thirty-four scientific papers, autistic adults are less likely to be lonely if—somewhat obviously— they have relationships, experience fewer difficulties with social skills, and have positive views and acceptance of themselves. While there are many different ways to achieve these things, some autistics have gravitated toward a certain particularly potent molecular tool.
Aaron Paul Orsini grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and as a teenager he remembers oscillating between being on the periphery of social gatherings and being “overly performative and needing to take over a situation.” At parties or at professional conferences as a young adult, he’d often feel overwhelmed by the bombardment of incoming sensory information.
When he was twenty-three, Aaron started seeing a psychologist for depression, anxiety, and what he described as “feeling that I would never ‘get it,’ and not really having any answers about how or why that might be.” During one session, the psychologist handed him a questionnaire to fill out without really explaining what it was for. After evaluating Aaron’s answers, the psychologist announced that Aaron was autistic.
In some ways, this news came as a relief. Knowing that he was autistic provided Aaron with a new way to conceive of his specific challenges and potential strengths. Yet even with this revelation—and to his distress—his lifelong habit of focusing on his deficits and limitations proved stubbornly resilient to change. “Even though I could tell myself, ‘Oh, I have superpowers,’ I was still feeling down and feeling a bit like, for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t be able to do things,” he said.
When Aaron was twenty-seven, he experienced something of a quarter-life crisis and wound up on a train from Chicago to the West Coast with only a backpack in hand. He befriended a group of free-spirited fellow travelers who gave him a tab of LSD—a chance encounter that changed his life. Sitting on a tree stump in a forest, Aaron felt his mind go still; his awareness widened, and his sensory issues suddenly seemed manageable. The LSD also bestowed him with an ability to better read between the lines of social interactions and emotions in ways “I quite literally could never have imagined,” he writes in Autism on Acid, a book he published in 2019.
Aaron discovered MDMA shortly after LSD, when he was invited to a gathering of artists, musicians, and other creative types. By this time, he was an old hand at classic psychedelics, but MDMA was unique, he found, in that the experience never strayed beyond the realm of his own narrative, “with my ego fully intact,” he said. “It was like taking a crystallized form of intuition.”
MDMA’s use as a tool for reducing social anxiety was also made clear to Aaron that night, when he sat down next to a stranger and unhesitatingly struck up a conversation. He felt comfortable, he found, not only chatting but also just being silent with the other person and enjoying the shared moment. “In that instance, I struggled to feel like I had a problem, and I struggled to feel like, if a problem came up, it would be bad,” Aaron recalled. “Everything seemed endurable, just because of how much love I felt for being alive. And for the other people with me as well.”Continue reading “I Feel Love: MDMA for Autism and Social Anxiety”