Research, Treatment

Using Cannabis to Help Treat Autism Spectrum Disorder

July 1, 2020 11:14 am ET

An increasing number of patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their families are turning to cannabis as a solution. Especially since the current pharmaceutical interventions only assist in alleviating some of the related symptoms but are ultimately unable to address the underlying conditions associated with ASD. Although research on cannabis for ASD is still in early stages, what has been done so far suggests that cannabis can be an effective treatment for ASD, just as it is for other conditions.  

What is ASD?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a broad term that is used to categorize individuals with challenges in social skills, have repetitive behaviors, as well as challenging and repetitive speech and nonverbal communication. There are many subtypes of ASD which are influenced by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. Since autism is a spectrum disorder, each individual with it has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. 

Other Types of Spectrum Disorders:

  • Autism Disorder 
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. 
  • Rett Syndrome (a rare genetic disorder)

ASD is often used as an umbrella term of these spectrum disorders and should be considered as such for the purpose of this article. 

Clinical Evidence for Cannabis as a Treatment for ASD:

  • The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in collaboration with Zelda Therapeutics, is creating a registry of children with ASD, who also make use of medical cannabis. The doctors and professionals are mainly following their health by examining cannabinoid concentrations in pediatric patients.
  • Three clinical trials have been published but the results are somewhat vague. The researchers concluded that the cannabidiol (CBD) in cannabis modulates the glutamate-GABA system but the prefrontal-GABA system responds differently in patients with ASD. This means that results in a larger population would differ. 
  • Israel did it again. They recently published a study on children with ASD, which also provided evidence of not only alleviating symptoms but also improving the quality of day to day activities. Over 80% of the patients and their parents reported moderate to significant improvements. After 6 months on the treatment, many of the ASD students were even reported being able to take on daily tasks, such as getting dressed, without assistance.
  • A $1.3 million dollar clinical study, funded by the United States Department of Defence, is also studying children with ASD. However, this study is more interested in cannabidivarin (CBDV). 

How Can Cannabis Help?

Many people with ASD struggle with comorbid (relating) conditions. Cannabis has already displayed its ability to be helpful in dealing with symptoms such as inflammation but cannabis can also assist ASD patients by treating the following comorbid conditions of ASD.

  • Epilepsy

Around 25% of children and adults with ASD end up with treatment-resistant epilepsy as a result. Cannabis has been proven to improve the life of any person with epilepsy and seizures time and time again. The cannabidiol compound found in cannabis acts as an anticonvulsant agent, significantly reducing effects and fits. It can act like this because it targets the receptors TRPV1 and GPR55 instead of the CB1R and CB2R. Epilepsy medication can also present with adverse side effects, whereas cannabis is limiting adverse effects. 

  • Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders in comorbidity with ASD are estimated to be prevalent in around 40-80% of people suffering from ASD. Cannabis for sleep has yielded conflicting results although one thing is clear, if a person with a medical condition consumes cannabis appropriately, it will afford them a better nights’ sleep with minimal disturbances. 

  • Behavioral Impairment

ASD persons have impaired social functioning. This can include actions out of aggression and self-injurious behavior. No need to explain why that’s a problem but cannabis can help reduce anxious and stressful feelings and thoughts that could lead to self-injury. Unfortunately, there is not enough research and evidence for the link between social functioning and cannabis use. Many people can give you a testimony of cannabis allowing them to relax and come out of their shells, however, environments in which cannabis is consumed plays a big role in the social experience. 

  • Psychosocial and Mental Health

Anxiety and mood disorders plague around 40% of people with ASD. Alongside pain management, epilepsy, and appetite stimulation, cannabis has proven over and over how effective it can be when used to treat anxiety and stress. However, it is important to understand that the potency of cannabis can play a role in whether the anxiety is reduced or increased. It is recommended to stick to low-potency products. To find out more, be sure to check our article on a study showing that high-potency cannabis may increase the risk of anxiety

Evidence supporting cannabis for ASD is certainly mixed however, reducing epilepsy, improving sleep, and reducing anxiety and stress are major benefits to consuming medical cannabis. Hopefully, as research continues, the evidence of the benefits from cannabis for ASD will largely outweigh the uncertainty and perhaps even expand in its range of benefits. 

As you can see, a lack of research does not stop cannabis from improving the overall quality of life for persons with ASD. Many professionals agree that cannabis as a treatment is safe, effective, and most affordable, however, they also agree that more controlled trials should be done in order to get a better understanding of how cannabis affects patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

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