Sunday, June 19, 2011

LSD & Autism

My brother and I have always been exact opposites. He likes sports; I like books. I love to go out with friends; he would rather stay home and play on the computer. He likes math class; I like English. However, our most obvious difference is that he was diagnosed with Autism at age three. 
I was only five years old at the time, but since then the lives of each of our family members have been impacted irrevocably, mostly in a positive way. My mother encouraged my early love of books and writing by giving me a unique "homework assignment." I wrote and illustrated a shoe-tying manual when my brother was having trouble grasping the concept. He was an early reader as well, and would delightedly flip through each of the pages and laugh at my goofy stick-figure drawings. My mother would hold him on her lap and guide him through the process, until he finally understood well enough to do it himself. I would sit next to them and beam with pride that something I had created could have a positive effect on someone else. From then on, the only thing I have wanted to do with my life is write. I hope to use my skill with and enthusiasm for language to influence the world and the individuals in it. 
As time went on, I developed skills to match those he lacked. He often speaks in a cryptic, seemingly illogical way, but since we grew up together I was the only one who could translate what he meant to my parents and the other adults who dealt with him, further improving my own language and people skills and helping him to be understood and accepted. I helped him make friends by inviting him along with me on outings, and encouraging him to join clubs he might be interested in. I enjoy seeing him succeed in a realm where he has had such difficulties, and love doing whatever I can to help. 
Most importantly, I learned from my brother that each individual really is just that, and cannot be judged by his or her differences. In the diverse world we live in, we must learn to accept everyone, regardless of any label or diagnosis you can attach to them. My brother's presence in my life has reminded me how important the individual is to the whole world, and what a difference one person can make.
Yes, I just subjected you to my entire college admissions essay (names excised). Yes, it's a little cheesy and self-serving, but it's all true. I think it's important to help you understand not only my relationship with LSD, but my relationship with Autism as well.

Autism is often misunderstood, due to its spectrum of symptoms that differ per individual, and its convoluted history. I have lived with my Autistic brother for 17 of my 18 years, and even so, it's much easier to explain my brother and his unique behavior than it is to explain Autism as a whole. I can assure you that the barely-stifled rumors of Autism being created by unloving mothers isn't true: Autism is thought to be caused by a variety of factors in conjunction, including genetics (not one gene; the rights ones must be "in alignment"), disease during pregnancy (like Rubella), exposure to certain chemicals in the womb, and/or immune system deficits. There is no test for Autism, and maybe there never will be, but symptoms are noticeable by age three, and include:

  • Impairment of nonverbal social behaviors (like eye contact)
  • Trouble with peer relationships
  • Lack of social reciprocity (trouble holding conversation, or truly sharing in shared experiences)
  • Delay in spoken language and other forms of communication, like gesticulation
  • Inappropriate use of language (not the swearing that is a stereotype of Tourette's, but problems with pronouns and prepositions, or repetition of other people's words or sentences, etc.)
  • Restricted and obsessive interests (for example, my brother can't really hold a conversation about anything besides sports statistics)
  • Adherence to rituals and schedules, and a resultant anxiety if they are changed or something unexpected occurs
  • Repetitive mannerisms (hand-flapping is the stereotype; my brother never does anything halfway, and instead gallops around the yard or house with his hand a few inches from his face, and makes ticky-sounding computer noises to his hand, which I'm sure terrifies the neighbors)
  • Sensitivity to sensory stimulation (one boy I know keeps his fingers in his ears all the time; my brother is phobic of fire alarms and dogs, and has to cut the itchy tags off of all of his clothing)

These traits persist through adulthood-- an Autistic child, without extensive therapy and special education, will probably never be socially "normal." Therefore, Autism isn't just a disorder, it's an important part of what makes an Autistic individual him- or herself. (If you're interested in reading more about Autism, its history, and its impact on families, I recommend Richard Grinker's Unstrange Minds. I'm only about halfway through it right now, but it's very interesting and informative and matches up closely with my experience with this disorder.)

Before LSD was hijacked by the hippies and the radicals, it belonged to the psychiatrists. They used it to treat a variety of emotional and psychological problems, including alcoholism and schizophrenia. In the early sixties, Autism was just changing from a symptom meaning extreme introversion, to a unique diagnosis separate from childhood schizophrenia (which is actually extremely rare). However, psychiatry at that time was not as organized as it is today, and therefore childhood schizophrenia was still a frequent diagnosis.

LSD and schizophrenia were connected in the minds of the experimenters because it was first used to simulate psychotic episodes for the researchers themselves, to better understand their patients. Though it is now believed by most that organic schizophrenia and this induced state are very different, the connection remained and LSD began to be explored as a treatment for schizophrenia. In a field dominated by Freud's psychoanalysis, psychologists thought that the same anxiety that induced psychosis in some test subjects would release repressed material in others, helping them to deal with the roots of their problems. Patients on LSD experienced either an intensification of their symptoms, no change at all, or a strange mix of intensification and normalization of behaviors. Mute patients would often laugh-- or cry-- hysterically for hours on end, sometimes bouncing between the two at the mercy of strong mood swings. However, most schizophrenic patients seemed relatively immune to the effects of LSD, and therefore it was an ineffective treatment. A few researchers were inspired by these studies decided to try their luck with LSD therapy for the "childhood schizophrenics." They believed that the disinhibition may make Autistic children more "present" and better able to assimilate social understanding.

Freedman conducted a study on twelve moderate-to-severe cases, ages five to eleven. The observed effects, which were were either physical and measurable or inferred through body language because of the patients' lack of speech capabilities to describe their experience, included flushing of the face, pupil dilation, catatonia, lack of coordination, lack of appetite, exploration of new bodily sensations, increased desire for physical contact, mood swings, hallucinations, panic, relaxation, freer use of language (an increase in quantity of communication but not quality; no new words or phrases were used), and (my favorite!) "dizziness due to whirling." The researchers had a problem with continuing the treatment because tolerance built up so quickly, but the research was promising. One eight-year-old girl responded very well to treatments over a year's worth of weekly sessions; the severe behavior problems were cured in a young boy; and another ten-year-old girl improved after only three months.

Another study found a greater rate of success by administering half-doses twice daily. It raised the social maturity rating of the younger children but was less beneficial to the older children. Children who were not Autistic, but actually had schizophrenia, showed much more improvement with LSD therapy than did adult schizophrenics.

Though LSD has worked for Autistic children in the past, I wouldn't say that I recommend it for everyone with Autism. My brother, for example, is too high-functioning, anxious, and self-aware to end up with anything besides unpleasant confusion and/or a bad trip-- pot brownies might suit him better. However, I know kids with more severe symptoms, who would be more likely to benefit from LSD therapy. Those who are further removed from the everyday reality of the rest of us may be better equipped to deal with LSD therapy as just another new experience in a world that barely makes sense to them as it is. This is another promising field of psychiatric research that has been entirely stemmed by the insane War on Drugs, which is not only punishing recreational users, but alcoholics, PTSD-sufferers, AIDS patients, and Autistic children.
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