Friday, 5 October 2018

Autism & Ecstacy

When I was a nursing student in the early 90s, ecstasy was passed around like communion bread at a particularly frisky catholic convention. No self-respecting rave or club was complete without the holy trinity of cigarettes, booze and drugs, mixed against a backdrop of sweaty techno.  Ecstasy (like god) was everywhere.

Got my seat picked out in hell

Despite media portrayals of nurses as martyred, altruistic angels, our halos are pretty tarnished and there's a fair few feathers missing from our wings (probably lost at dodgy parties and sticky student apartments).  Nurses are as messed up and freaked out as the people we're treating... we just like trying to make people feel better while we're all falling over ourselves trying to make sense of the world.
Nurses are a funny lot;  we can have a cigarette at breaktime and return to care for a patient with end-stage lung cancer.  We can be fastidious in our care of a teenager in drug-induced multi-system failure, and see no harm in dropping acid tabs at the weekend.  We can witness men bleed out from esophageal varices (varicose veins above the stomach, caused by alcohol-induced liver damage) and think nothing of going on a bender that George Best would shy away from.
I'm not suggesting that nurses are a bunch of degenerate smack-heads, but we're just as human and fallible as any other profession, and can buy into the belief that bad stuff is shit that only happens other people.
I hasten to add (in case my mother is reading) that I never did any of these things  (.... actually the sad truth is that I really didn't... I'm one of those unfortunates marked to always be caught if I did anything wrong... instead of blowing off a bit of steam I'd become a cautionary tale with a massive guilt complex, so I left the reckless stuff to more daring souls).  I have a lot of stuff to catch up on.

Ecstasy was a big part of the drug scene when I was a student and (apart from killing the odd person or landing them into my ICU with hyperthermia or seizures), mostly did nothing more dramatic than cause people to feel like a loved-up jitterbug.

So, when I read about it being used as a potential therapy to treat autism, I thought "y'know, my life is hard enough without encouraging Finian to jive with crystal rainbows while getting touchy-feely with the postman.... maybe I'll give this one a miss".

But cynicism is lazy.  It's thoughtless and judgmental at best, and at worst it can preclude learning and maybe make me blind to a potentially helpful therapy.
When I look at a therapy I have no experience of, I try to be sceptical, but not cynical.
Not long ago, I wrote about extracts from cannabis (not the rock n' roll component, sadly, just a well-behaved compound within it) that is successfully treating seizures and is currently being looked at as a possible therapy for autism.  My initial reaction was that someone was hogging the bong a little too long; but it turns out that my knee-jerk reaction was misplaced, and cannabis extracts show actual promise (further research pending) for helping our kids manage the hard stuff.

So I fired up Dr Google and did a bit of cyber digging.

Ecstasy (aptly often called E) induces a state of euphoria, empathy and energy about 30 minutes after being taken orally.  It has no current medical use; initially it was hoped it might aid disinhibition in psychotherapy, but I imagine that tripped out love-bugs who just wanna groove, maaaan, don't get the most out of therapy.   It can cause agitation, increased body temperature, dehydration, palpitations, bruxism, lockjaw, paranoia and sleep difficulties.... oh, and sometimes an abrupt case of death (bummer).  A regular user can build up a tolerance to it pretty quickly, so will need to take increasing doses to achieve the same effect.
Apart from all that, though, it's grand.

An article here suggests that ecstasy can help autistic adults who suffer from social anxiety, but I don't imagine that anyone off their face on E Bombs will be too concerned about committing social faux pas.  Eleven participants were selected to receive either ecstacy or a placebo, and not surprisingly, those who received the active drug experienced reduced social anxiety.  The sample group is small, there is no mention of a control group and there is no discussion of short or long term side effects; but at the same time anything that might help people whose lives are crippled by anxiety is worth a look, and maybe a much bigger study would shed more light on it.
However, another article criticises the promotion of ecstasy as a potential therapy, discussing it's proven neurotoxicity, leading to long term cognitive and physical decline.  They point out that it's media image as a love drug conceals the fact that it is a dangerous chemical with no safe limit in humans, and that testing it in autistic people who already have "disorganized, misplaced and irregularly shaped" neurons is especially dangerous.
Another very small study in 2016 showed a positive outcome for reducing social anxiety in autistic people, and reports no side effects (short term, at least).

These studies are obviously too small to apply to the general autistic population, and on the strength of what I've been reading I won't be popping down to my local rave to score a few scooby snacks for Finian.  For each article or paper cautiously hinting at promise, there is another saying it's all the work of  the AntiChrist and we're going to hell in a handcart for even thinking about it (although I may be paraphrasing).
Research has a long way to go before we're even close to considering ecstasy as an autism therapy.
It makes great headlines, but inducing my son to dance with purple elephants while licking the cat doesn't sound like a winner to me.
Especially not for the cat.


  1. Fascinating stuff! I can't imagine any study would pass ethical guide lines to test this on a larger scale.
    I don't think I'll be recommending it to any parents anytime soon but, thought provoking stuff. It's important to be open minded and crticial I agree.

    1. Hi Hannah. Thanks for dropping by. I'm kinda amazed that even the small studies got ethical approval. That said, it's always good to think outside the box.
      I'm also pretty sure the turtle in the shell is me... maybe I'll volunteer for the next study xc