Medicinal Cannabis and Autism
What role can CBD play with Autism?
Like much of the progress seen in the medical cannabis industry, the use of CBD oil for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has grown from the grassroots level.
The trailblazing parents and caregivers who have pursued CBD medicine for their loved ones with Autism have a passion and drive to achieve the best healthcare and quality of life for people with Autism that has spurred research forward like no other force could.
As studies continue to emerge, there is hope that cannabinoid medicines could alleviate some of the Autism-related traits and behaviours that make day-to-day life challenging for autistic people and their families.
Can CBD oil help with Autism?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the most abundant cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Unlike its big sister THC, CBD is non-intoxicating and does not create the “high” typically associated with recreational cannabis use.
This makes CBD oil a promising candidate for supporting those with ASD, specifically in relation to children. CBD oil is well known for its ability to reduce seizures in children with epilepsy, so there is an established framework for its safety and prescription in children and adolescents.
Israel has been at the epicentre of research into CBD oil for Autism both in the lab and in humans. A 2018 study of 53 children with ASD taking CBD oil recorded improvements across numerous measures including hyperactivity, sleep disturbances, self-injury and anxiety.
Hyperactivity occurs in 40-80% of people with autism, in this study nearly 70% of children with hyperactive behaviours showed improvements in hyperactivity measures.
Similarly, of the 34 children in the study who exhibited self-injurious or violent behaviours, 67.6% showed a reduction in these outbursts.
Treating Autism with medicinal cannabis
The clinical experience of doctors shows that CBD or medical cannabis formulations for children with ASD don’t necessarily lead to changes expected with conventional medications for ASD.
Medications like antipsychotics are utilised to quieten down rage attacks, self-harm or violent behaviour, and stimulants may be used to reduce inattention. For some individuals, these pharmaceuticals are helpful, however, side effects regularly include increased weight, sleep disruptions, or an exacerbation of symptoms the medication is trying to treat.
Medicinal cannabis works in unexpected ways with Autism
What many physicians and support workers have observed when prescribing cannabinoid medicine to people with ASD is that disruptive behaviours reduce and social interactions improve.
Unexpectedly physicians report that while disruptive behaviours are lessened, children are not necessarily “quietened” or “docile” due to CBD oil. When rages and frustrations are alleviated children can become more present, attentive and expressive.
For families, educators and carers this unexpected enhancement of positive behaviours (such as increased eye contact) and the ability of Autistic people to express themselves with greater clarity (even if non-verbal) can make a dramatic difference in the quality of life of the individual and their caregivers.
While yet to be proven definitively, it is theorised that CBD regulates neurochemical processes that can be disrupted in an atypical brain. By influencing the Endocannabinoid System, CBD oil may balance certain chemical signals in the brain responsible for softening the inner turmoil that leads to outbursts.
Autism and the Endocannabinoid System
The Endocannabinoid System, also known as the ECS, is a little known body system that has a huge influence over every moment of life in humans and pretty much all animals.
The ECS is made up of chemical signals (endocannabinoids) and receptors that keep physiological functions in balance. Animal models and human studies indicate that imbalance or dysregulation of the ECS is a contributing factor in ASD.
Children with ASD have been shown to have lower levels of anandamide and other endocannabinoids, compared to children without ASD.
Anandamide, also referred to as the “bliss molecule”, mediates our “feel-good” hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is involved in social behaviour and the sensations of reward or pleasure we get out of interacting with other human beings.
There are early indications that CBD could enhance oxytocin during social interactions via its influence on the ECS and anandamide – which may open new avenues for supporting prosocial behaviour in ASD with CBD oil.
CBD oil for anxiety and ASD
CBD oil may help reduce anxiety in people with Autism by modulating the stress response in the brain which might influence social behaviour or reduce self-injury that stems from anxiety.
Research into medical cannabis and Autism
Thus far CBD treatments for ASD are predominant, however, that doesn’t mean THC is out of the picture completely.
Another study out of Israel with 188 children taking personalised doses of medical cannabis showed improvements in individuals’ sleep, ability to concentrate on daily tasks and even reductions in medications such as antipsychotics.
This study offers a great example of the “real-life” application of medical cannabis where the dose of cannabinoids was tailored to the individual. For example, those with epilepsy might have had a high CBD ratio, whereas if violent outbursts or insomnia were present small amounts of THC were included in the treatment protocol.
Impact of THC on Autism
Understanding of how THC interacts in the brains of people with ASD is very much in its infancy. Its influence on the ECS and inflammation in the brain could make THC helpful for autistic children and adults in certain situations.
There are valid concerns about the effects of THC on the developing brain and understandably parents or guardians don’t want their loved ones getting “high”, however, at the therapeutic doses used in ASD there is little chance of intoxicating effects.
Potential side effects of CBD for Autism
CBD has proven, time and time again, to have a great safety profile. But, just like any medicine, it can cause some side effects.
ASD manifests differently in each individual, this is true at a behavioural level and in terms of an individual’s neurochemistry. With this in mind, families caring for people or children with autism know all too well, there is no “one size fits all” solution.
Medical cannabis is no exception to this rule. Although many with ASD can find a sense of calm and relief from disruptive behaviours from CBD treatment, clinical trials and real-world stories tell us CBD isn’t helpful or suitable for all individuals.
In ASD studies with CBD oil side effects most commonly reported have been sleepiness or mild irritability. However, these are usually mild and resolve with reduced dose or cessation.
Data from other research tells us symptoms like dizziness or digestive complaints can also occur.
CBD oil for ASD in Australia
Rigorous research into the benefits and safety profile of medical cannabis or CBD oil for children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is in its early stages, but that doesn’t mean CBD is inaccessible.
Treating symptoms of autism or concurrent conditions with CBD oil is decided in collaboration with GP or medical specialist. For further information on eligibility for medical cannabis treatments, book a free screening appointment with CA Clinics.
Jessica Kindynis BHSc Nat