According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 59 kids suffer from autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. This disorder can negatively affect a family’s quality of life. There is no cure, and some people don’t respond to treatment. Many parents, teachers and caregivers become frustrated when working with autistic children because they don’t know how to improve problematic behavior or help children with ASD. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a promising candidate for effective autism treatment.
What Is Autism?
ASD is a range of conditions with many subtypes, according to Autism Speaks. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes certain repetitive behavior patterns, communication problems and psychosocial issues. In severe cases, it can seriously impair an individual’s ability to perform daily activities.
Symptoms of autism begin in early childhood. Even before they can speak, many infants with ASD seem different than other children. They may focus inappropriately on certain objects, neglect to make eye contact or be quieter than other babies. Some infants follow standard milestone guidelines until they’re 2 or 3 years old, at which point they start to show signs of the disorder.
People with ASD have trouble interacting with others. They may not have appropriate responses when people engage with them. They might ignore other people altogether.
They may also engage in repetitive verbal or physical behaviors. They might rock their bodies or flap their arms. Some people with ASD repeat certain sounds or phrases. Others can get so obsessed about following a schedule that they become anxious in an uncontrolled environment.
ASD is often accompanied by other health conditions, such as:
• Sleep disturbances
• Gastrointestinal issues
• Eating problems
• Attention problems
• Obsessive-compulsive disorder
People with ASD may also have a heightened response to sensory inputs.
Autism isn’t curable, and it persists into adulthood. Treatment can help with behavioral and psychological problems that accompany the disease.
What Causes ASD?
Experts aren’t sure what causes ASD. They think that genes play a role in the development of the disorder. Studies show that if one identical twin has ASD, the other twin develops it in 36 to 95 percent of cases. If a family has one child with ASD, subsequent children are more likely to have the disorder. Research shows that people with ASD are more likely to have family members with psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
The genes involved in autism are the ones that affect neuronal communication. When brain cells can’t transmit messages properly, a wide variety of functions can be affected. Problems with brain development can occur due to genetic abnormalities, but they can also form from environmental factors.
Creating the right environment for people with ASD has been shown to improve symptoms. People with the disorder may function at a higher level when they get the support that they need.
How Is Autism Treated?
ASD is usually treated with a multilateral approach that involves education, behavioral interventions and medication. Most professionals agree that early intervention delivers the best results. Every person with autism has different symptoms. Therefore, the treatment must be individualized for the patient.
Behavioral treatments for autism include:
• Applied behavior analysis – increase helpful behaviors and diminish disruptive actions
• Floortime – relationship-based therapy in which caregivers get down on the child’s level and follow the youngster’s lead
• Play therapy – enhances cognitive, social and language skills through fun interaction
• Occupational therapy – improves motor, cognitive, physical and social skills
• Speech therapy – addresses language and communication issues
People with ASD also have the option of using medication. Medication usually delivers the best results when it’s used in combination with behavioral treatments. Drugs are usually used to treat secondary symptoms of ASD, such as anxiety, gastrointestinal problems or hyperactivity.
Some of the most common medications for autism include:
• Risperidone – helps with irritability
• Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs – help with depression
• Anti-anxiety medications – reduce nervousness
• Stimulants – help with attention problems
• Antipsychotics – help with aggression and psychosis
• Anticonvulsants – reduce seizures in patients with epilepsy
Up to 64 percent of autistic children take medication for the disorder. Thirty-five percent take more than one drug. Adults with the disorder might take a cocktail of pharmaceuticals to help with their symptoms.
There are many problems associated with giving so much medication to children. It can be hard to get someone with ASD to remember or agree to take their pills. No drugs are approved to treat the core symptoms of ASD. Many of the drug combinations that are given to people with this disorder are untested.
Plus, almost every medication that’s used for ASD has significant side effects, including:
• Dry mouth
• Weight gain
It’s important for people with autism to experiment with the right combination of drugs to enhance the medications’ benefits and reduce the risks. If they’re amenable to taking pharmaceuticals, they might want to consider using CBD oil to treat autism.
CBD: A Refresher
Before we get into the research behind CBD and autism, we want to provide some basic information about CBD. There are many myths and misinformation about the product, and some people believe that using it on children is controversial.
The compound is one component of the cannabis plant. While it’s true that marijuana is part of the cannabis family, CBD is not the same as recreational pot. Marijuana and hemp, which are both cannabis plants, contain up to 140 cannabinoids. These are chemicals that interact with the human endocannabinoid system to provide a number of effects.
THC is the one cannabinoid with which many people are familiar. This is the chemical in marijuana that interacts with CB1 receptors in the body and makes people feel high. Most of the other known cannabinoids do not have any psychoactive effect. However, they do regulate the endocannabinoid system to balance central nervous system functions and improve people’s health.
CBD is the most abundant non-psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis plants. Because it doesn’t produce euphoric effects but does influence wellness in a variety of ways, researchers have been focusing on it as an alternative to traditional medication for many health conditions.
CBD can be found in a number of products. It is most readily available as CBD oil that can be administered under the tongue, but it comes in extract, tincture, capsule, edible, topical and inhalable forms.
Benefits of Using CBD for Autism
CBD has been shown to improve symptoms of ASD. Some studies have examined CBD’s ability to treat the core symptoms of autism. Others have found that it is useful for mediating the secondary symptoms, such as gastrointestinal issues, anxiety and sleep disturbances. There is a long list of studies that shows that CBD is effective for treating epileptic seizures. We discuss the research in more detail below.
Whereas conventional pharmaceuticals that are given to people with autism are associated with adverse effects, CBD has an extremely mild side effect profile. CBD has been well-tolerated by most participants in published studies. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the majority of individuals who use CBD don’t have negative reactions.
If users do experience side effects, they might experience:
• Appetite changes
CBD can interact adversely with some medications. Because someone with autism is likely taking pharmaceuticals, they should consult with their doctor before using CBD.
CBD and Autism: The Research
Many parents are hesitant to give their children a product that’s associated with recreational drug use. However, as we mentioned earlier in the article, CBD has many therapeutic effects and is not addictive or mind-altering. Much of the research into cannabinoids is changing the stigma that the marijuana plant holds. Several studies have investigated CBD’s use for children with a variety of medical conditions, including autism.
CBD’s Effects on Epilepsy Has Been Heavily Studied
Cannabis began its public journey into medicine when it was investigated for its ability to treat epilepsy in Charlotte Figi. The young girl had multiple seizures a day. Some of them would last for hours. By the time she was 2, Charlotte exhibited symptoms of autism and had severe cognitive dysfunction.
She wouldn’t make eye contact with people. She was aggressive to the point of self-harm. By age 3, Charlotte couldn’t walk, talk or eat.
Charlotte had a rare type of epilepsy called Dravet’s syndrome. She was put on several medications, but her condition worsened. Doctors weren’t sure that anything could improve it.
After hearing about another child with Dravet’s who experienced improvements after using medical marijuana, Charlotte’s parents looked into cannabis as a treatment for epilepsy. The child went from having 300 seizures a week to having none. The results were almost immediate.
The Figi’s worked with marijuana growers to develop a strain that was high in CBD and low in THC. It was named Charlotte’s Web, and it has helped other patients with epilepsy since it was introduced.
After that, several studies were performed to look into CBD’s effectiveness for treating epilepsy in children. In a 2013 study, parents who had given their children CBD-enriched cannabis were surveyed. Each child in the study had been taking an average of 12 medications per day. Eighty-four percent of parents said that CBD reduced the frequency of their kids’ seizures. The children also experienced increased alertness, better moods and improved sleep after using CBD.
An older study found similar effects of CBD on treatment-resistant epileptic patients. CBD doesn’t reduce seizures in every individual with epilepsy. However, 30 percent of people with epilepsy don’t respond to anticonvulsant medications, either.
What do the epilepsy studies have to do with CBD for autism? It is estimated that about one-third of individuals with autism also have epilepsy. Scientists don’t fully comprehend the connection. The variance in brain circuitry in people with autism may make them more prone to seizures than individuals who don’t have autism.
Autism Has Been Linked to Dysfunction in the Endocannabinoid System
There have not been many studies into CBD’s effects on core autism symptoms. But research does point to the fact that the endocannabinoid system may play a role in ASD. If that’s the case, then CBD could be a hopeful treatment.
A 2011 study found that the behaviors were connected to the expression of certain endocannabinoid receptor genes. The researchers investigated whether THC enhanced or decreased autism-like behaviors in mice. They found that behaviors associated with locomotor activity were suppressed when the cannabinoid was administered. These scientists came to the conclusion that cannabinoids could be useful in reducing repetitive, self-injurious and impulsive behavior in people with ASD.
In a human study that was conducted in 2013, researchers found that children with ASD experienced an upregulation of CB2 cells. CB2 receptors are part of the endocannabinoid system. If the body is producing more of those cells in children with autism, logic suggests that administering a cannabinoid that acts on those receptors, such as CBD, may help bring them back to homeostasis.
Another study looked at the correlation between post-natal inflammation and social behavior problems in teenagers. Researchers found that endocannabinoid chemicals played a significant role in neuronal signaling that affected social behavior. They reported that modifying those chemicals could be a target for treating disorders such as social anxiety and autism.
Recent Research Into CBD For Autism
In July 2018, the results of an Israeli study that looked into CBD’s effects on the behavior of children with autism were revealed publicly. Researchers administered cannabis with high concentrations of CBD to autistic children whose behavior had not improved while taking conventional drugs. Eighty percent of the participants in the study experienced a reduction in problematic behaviors after taking CBD oil.
The volunteers were children on the autism spectrum. The average age of the kids in the study group was 12. They were given cannabis oil that was composed of 20 percent CBD and 1 percent THC for a minimum of seven months.
At the end of the study period, the parents were asked to report on their children’s:
While 80 percent of the parents noticed a decrease in detrimental behavior, 62 percent said that their children’s conduct noticeably improved. Fifty percent said that the kids’ communication was enhanced, and forty percent reported that anxiety symptoms diminished.
This study shows that CBD may be a promising treatment for children with autism. It’s especially favorable because it can improve functioning and quality of life for children who don’t get relief from conventional autism medications.
In 2018, UC San Diego Health reported that researchers at the University of California are coordinating a study to examine the mechanisms behind CBD’s therapeutic benefits for children with severe ASD. The researchers will look into the way that CBD influences brain activity and whether it can reduce autism symptoms such as self-harm, aggression, hyperactivity, social problems and communication deficits.
The History of Research Into CBD and Autism
This wasn’t the first study that showed that CBD has benefits for autistic children. Dr. Adi Aran, the medical professional who treated the children in the 2018 study, is a forerunner in CBD research for autism. In 2017, he ran a novel trial to investigate the effects of cannabis extracts on 120 children on the spectrum.
Aran began studying CBD for autism after seeing the results of CBD treatment for epilepsy. Some participants in those studies were also on the spectrum and experienced improvements in their autism symptoms while using cannabis. He says that parents often ask their children’s doctors for recommendations for using CBD for autism, but there weren’t enough studies to show that it could help. That’s when Aran decided to look into it himself.
When he publicized the trial, his waiting list filled up quickly. People were excited to try something new because the current available treatments aren’t always effective.
Participants with moderate to severe autism who were between the ages of 5 and 29 joined the study. Approximately 40 percent did not experience improvements from traditional medications.
Are There Any Gaps in the Research?
Parents, adult patients with autism and professionals in the medical community are interested in CBD for autism. However, there are still not enough studies to prove that the compound works for treating ASD.
Also, the negative associations that people have with cannabis have made it difficult for some scientists to do their work. The Israeli government has a progressive perspective on cannabis research. The government has funded some organizations that study the compound, making it easier for Aran to perform his studies.
Some consumers are afraid to purchase CBD products even though they’re completely legal in all 50 states as long as their concentration of THC is lower than 0.3 percent. But people are talking about CBD as a wonder treatment for a variety of diseases and disorders. There’s a great deal of anecdotal information online that shared success stories from people who have used CBD for autism.
What About Using CBD For The Secondary Symptoms Of Autism?
As we mentioned before, autism can produce a number of sub-symptoms that can detract from an individual’s quality of life. CBD has been shown to improve a number of these.
CBD for Gastrointestinal Symptoms and Appetite Issues
Up to 70 percent of people with autism complain about gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhea, constipation and reflux. Children with autism are more likely to have symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome than children without ASD.
CBD is well-known to have anti-inflammatory effects on the intestines of people with inflammatory bowel disease. It also interacts with endocannabinoid receptors in the gut, improving symptoms of digestive distress.
CBD has also been shown to reduce nausea. If stomach upset from medications or other factors makes someone with autism want to avoid eating, CBD may restore their appetite.
CBD for Depression and Anxiety
If people with autism also suffer from depression or anxiety, CBD may reduce the symptoms associated with those co-occurring disorders. A 2012 review found that CBD has proven anti-anxiety effects. It may be a useful treatment for a number of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety. Social interactions are often difficult for people with autism. If they experience anxiety when engaging with other people, CBD may bring them relief.
Endocannabinoid signaling also plays a role in the development of depression. CBD has such potent effects on mood that it works as well as some antidepressant medications.
CBD for Sleep
If an individual with autism has trouble sleeping, CBD can help with that too. Studies on CBD and sleep haven’t produced conclusive data. Some research shows that CBD can help you fall asleep, and others demonstrate that the cannabinoid enhances alertness.
It seems as though low doses of CBD contribute to better sleep. Most people don’t feel drowsy during the day after using CBD at night. The product might be worth experimenting with for sleep issues because it is much less likely to cause side effects than sleeping pills.
CBD for Hyperactivity
Symptoms of attention-deficit hyper activity disorder, or ADHD, are sometimes found in autistic children. Many users say that CBD has a calming effect. Studies also show that cannabinoids may be useful in treating ADHD.
If you or a loved one has autism, you may be able to find relief from certain symptoms by using CBD oil. Researchers are actively investigating it for its ability to treat core autism symptoms, which most medications don’t affect. The compound has also been shown to reduce other problematic symptoms of autism. Moreover, it has been safely used in children and has a better side effect profile than many pharmaceuticals.