Autism on Acid, Aaron Paul Orsini. Self-published, 2019.
What is autism? Most of us are familiar with autism only through what we’ve seen on movies or television, maybe an article we read on autistic children… but what is it like to be autistic? Would we be able to recognize when someone is or is not on the autism spectrum? Would we look for tell-tale signs, like social awkwardness or sensory overload? But that could be deceiving. Many people with autism learn to closely analyze social situations, so that they can carry on normal conversations without anyone realizing how much work they are putting into a social exchange that most people would take for granted.
Aaron Paul Orsini is an autistic man who did exactly this. His autism spectrum disorder (ASD) made it impossible for him to intuitively grasp the social dynamics that most people understand naturally. Orsini describes himself as having “social blindness.” Imagine that you couldn’t understand a person’s tone of voice, their facial expression, their intention, whether they were being sarcastic or not–and that you never have been able to understand any of that, so you don’t have a store of social knowledge to draw on. Imagine you had to analyze the words a person said carefully just to have any sense of what they meant. That was Orsini’s world. And for him, it wasn’t just a thought experiment, it was his life ever since he was a child.
Orsini did carefully analyze social interactions, and it helped to some extent. But as he writes in Autism on Acid, what would happen during a conversation with another person was that “while I was busy devoting mental energy and time to arriving at an apt interpretation [of what the other person said], I was likewise forced to abandon my post in terms of how I myself was wearing/puppeteering my face/body/voice, etc… Sure, it worked, but the moment someone went off-script, my expressive disharmony made itself known almost immediately.”
Some people might judge Orsini for this, thinking, “isn’t he just trying to be fake and have fake reactions to other people?” The answer is no–he’s trying to be a social being and his only other alternative is to not be a social being. At least, he thought that was his only alternative, and so when he was 27 years old, he ran away from his life in despair.
It was a few days after he ran away that someone gave him some LSD. He took it alone, in a forest. This was when his life transformed. “Connection, such connection,” he writes. “[A]s 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… I was awash in a sense of deep, deep love for so many aspects of life.” A few hours into the trip, he encountered a stranger in the forest and, even though their conversation consisted of small talk, Orsini writes that he “felt fully connected to the person opposite me.” Imagine having this experience of basic connection for the first time at age 27.
From this point forward, Orsini experimented with LSD at different dosages and in different settings to continue to gain knowledge and understanding of not just social dynamics, but of what it means to be human. He started taking smaller doses, 20 to 50 micrograms, because that seemed more helpful for participating in social situations than larger doses. He states that if he was “going to interact with a lot of people, 20 micrograms seemed like a much safer dose. If I was going to be mainly interacting with myself, or one or two people with whom I felt especially comfortable being around, I would take up to 50 micrograms.”
Turning on his social awareness wasn’t an easy experience for Orsini, because his previous lack of connection with others mirrored a lack of connection with his own emotions. Among the new experiences he had with LSD was “the sudden sensing of deep sadness, regret, shame, guilt, on and on. It was as if LSD had unclogged a lifetime of emotional constipation.” But he pushed on and continued to grow. “All of this ultimately only made me more aware. And with the aid of LSD, I began growing through ‘aha!’ moment after ‘aha!’ moment.”
How does LSD have this amazing effect that gives so much help to autistic people? Anyone who has experienced LSD knows how powerful it can be and the deep sense of connection it can create. Although not a doctor or a scientist, Orsini read extensively about neuroscience to help him understand LSD’s effects. He writes “…ASD has been theorized to be the result of disconnected or weakly-formed connections–and, in turn–weak cross-communication between key processing networks of the brain. In similarly basic terms, LSD has been shown to synesthetically connect otherwise disconnected or weakly connected processing networks of the brain, including networks theorized to play a key role in autism. With this in mind, my underlying thesis… revolves around the notion that LSD can be the neurological amplifier and connective patch that enables ASD-affected individuals to perceive and navigate the world through a more harmonious, neurotypical-like processing lens.”
Autism on Acid is not meant to be a “how-to” guide, and Orsini stresses that he is not encouraging others to follow his example. Because LSD is illegal and still not well understood, it could be very dangerous if used improperly or in the wrong circumstances. But he does encourage more scientific research on the use of LSD to treat autism and offers researchers his experience as evidence they can study.
Orsini is still autistic. He always will be. But for him, autism is no longer a burden, and he is able to experience social life fully. He gives an example of his thinking before LSD, contrasted with his thinking after LSD. Before LSD, he might think, “[t]hat woman’s smile indicates she is happy.” After LSD, he would think, “I feel happiness in the presence of this smiling woman.” He moved from analysis of what he saw to intuitive connection with others.
LSD is illegal almost everywhere, despite its enormous beneficial potential. It is unconscionable that most governments have banned this medicine and any research on it. But that is the state of the world today. Orsini writes that he stopped using LSD because it is illegal and because of the lack of research on it. However, he now feels more confident even without LSD and understands what real connection feels like. He now feels “more connected to myself and others more generally.” He can “[walk] between two worlds: the highly ‘mental’ worldview of ASD processing and the ‘mind-body’ worldview made possible by a presumed increase in overall functional connectivity.” He now has a choice of how he wants to approach the world.
Autism on Acid is a slender volume, but eye-opening in its elucidation of how LSD can help with autism spectrum disorder. The only criticism I have of the book is that Orsini doesn’t give us specific example of occasions when he used LSD in social situations and what the results were. But that does not detract from the overall power and importance of the work.
What we should recognize, in fact, is that, as valuable as this work is for people with autism spectrum disorder, we all have something to learn from it. If LSD can help the social understanding and connections of someone like Orsini, who in his pre-LSD life represented an extreme in his inability to understand and connect with others, how might it help the rest of us? If LSD allowed Orsini to move from trying to act like a social person and trying to carry on a normal conversation, to actually being a social person and having normal conversations, how might it help us? Could it allow us to let go of the pretensions we hold onto because we think they might impress or make us more acceptable to others? Can we, also, stop trying to be fake and just naturally be real?