Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a whole range of symptoms. As a developmental disorder, it impacts communication and behavior affecting the daily life of the individual. Supporters of Cannabidiol (CBD) have insisted for a long time that it is an effective treatment for the condition. Recently studies have explored how CBD can help treat children with autism, and the positive findings are giving parents much-needed hope that they will soon be able to manage the challenges that come with autism.
What is Autism?
ASD refers to a broad range of conditions which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, affects 1 in 59 children in the US. Autism is characterized by challenges with attention, social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and other forms of communication. Since there are many subtypes of autism, it is a spectrum disorder with each individual having a distinct set of challenges or strengths. People with autism learn, think and conduct problem solving in different ways, making life for some extremely challenging with the need for significant support, while others may be highly skilled and completely independent.
Autism is influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and those affected often have sensory sensitivities, seizures and sleep disorders. They are also prone to medical issues such as gastrointestinal disorders and mental issues such as anxiety and depression.
The first signs of autism usually appear by 2 to 3 years of age, but there are cases that are diagnosed even earlier than that.
How CBD Oil may help treat Autism
Found in cannabis, CBD is one of the main cannabinoid compounds within the plant. Not to be confused with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), also found in the plant, CBD is not psychoactive. Research has shown how CBD can be used to effectively treat anxiety, and despite a lack of clinical data, researchers decided that there was enough evidence to explore the possibility of using it as a possible treatment for autism.
Our bodies have their own neurotransmitter and receptor system, known as the endocannabinoid and it is stimulated by cannabinoids, including CBD and THC. It seems that there is an intriguing link between the endocannabinoid system and autism and it has been shown that children with autism have lower concentrations of certain cannabinoids in their blood. CBD has also been found to be effective in reducing autistic-like social behavior in animal studies of epilepsy and ASD.
Epidiolex is the first cannabis-derived medication to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since June 2018, it can be prescribed to treat some rare and severe forms of childhood epilepsy. The fact that 10 to 30% of people with ASD also suffer from epilepsy has led researchers to think that the two disorders may have similar biological pathways.
Socially disruptive behavioral problems, including tantrums, self-injury and violence, often lead parents of children with autism to seek alternative therapies. Medical cannabis has become a popular choice since it is proving to be extremely efficient in children with severe symptoms that do not respond well to other prescribed medical treatments.
Testing the feasibility of CBD in the treatment of Autism
Published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, a new study on 60 children diagnosed with ASD, evaluates the possibility of using CBD rich cannabis as a treatment. The children participating in the study all had severe behavior problems and the researchers gave the participants 2-3 daily doses of cannabis oil from whole plant extracts from strains with a 20:1 CBD to THC ratio. They started with a dosage of 1mg/kg body weight/day and increased it slowly over 2-4 weeks according to the patient’s response. For those that had no initial response to the treatment from the outset, cannabis oil with a higher THC concentration was given.
Adverse side effects of the cannabis treatment were experienced by 29 of the participants. These included sleep disturbances (14%), restlessness (9%) and loss of appetite (9%).
Overall, the results were rather encouraging, with 61% of the children’s caregivers reporting improved symptoms. There were positive changes in behavioral symptoms, communication and anxiety levels.
Even though the participants continued with other medications during the study, it was reported that some took fewer medications, others had their dosages lowered and some stopped taking them completely.
The majority of the children that participated in this study showed improved behavior, however, 16 did not complete it because of non-response, symptoms that worsened, and one case where a psychotic episode was experienced. The researchers concluded that, despite the optimistic results of the study, before doctors can begin prescribing CBD for the treatment of autism, they would need more conclusive evidence.
Follow-up studies will continue to use CBD-rich cannabis as well as Cannabidivarin (CBDV), a cannabis-based cannabinoid similar to CBD. The reason for this is that cannabis extracts with higher concentrations of THC can cause anxiety and a worsening of behavioral problems. This could be because of the psychoactive properties found in THC.
The impact of the study on Cannabis and Autism
Parents of children with autism are often skeptical when it comes to using prescription medication, with many of them feeling that their children take too much medication, while others feel that it may be causing their children more harm. It is encouraging for parents of children with autism, especially those with severe behavioral problems, that the FDA has already approved CBD for the treatment of epilepsy. They are hoping that more studies on cannabis oil or CBD will follow soon and that it won’t be long before there is an approval of CBD as a treatment for autism.
Taking into consideration that this first study to scientifically evaluate the effect of cannabis on ASD was largely positive, its results have come to confirm what many parents of children with autism have believed for quite a while now. Researchers, encouraged by the outcome, are now planning a follow-up study with 100 participants and in order to further study how cannabis can help those with severe, ASD related behavior problems.