Autism and Cannabis – What You Need to Know

What you need to know about cannabis and autism

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This article is to give an overview of autism spectrum disorders and explore the different uses of cannabis in treating them. Studies and personal experiences of individuals and families with autism show that there are connections between the plant and this condition. This article is a comprehensive, detailed reference for all your questions about CBD oil and autism spectrum disorders. There’s definitely some controversy around this issue, so there are a few different sides to the story that you need to you. Read about it here and find out what people are saying and researching in this area of medicine!

What is autism?

Autism is a disorder affecting brain development. It is characterized on a spectrum, with people experiencing its signs and symptoms in varied levels and combinations. It’s a condition that can affect nearly every aspect of a person’s life — social interaction and communication are some of the most affected areas of people’s lives.

Children often first show symptoms in infancy. The signs can include reduced eye contact and an indifferent or lacking response to their own names. They may not be responsive even to the people who care for them, parents or otherwise. Sometimes children show these signs later in life, or they become more apparent as otherwise normal milestones for social interaction are missed or exhibited in a unique behavioral pattern for the child.

The social interaction, physical, and behavioral symptoms often exhibited a child with autism grows up are:

  1. Unresponsive to people talking to them directly
  2. Avoids touch (such as hugs), and prefers to play on their own rather than with other children or adults
  3. Does not make eye contact or facial expressions
  4. Speech difficulties, or regressive speech patterns once learning has taken place
  5. Using words repetitively without proper usage
  6. Doesn’t express emotions in socially appropriate ways, or respond to the emotions of others
  7. Aggression or disruptive behavior in social interactions
  8. Poor recognition of body language, facial expressions, and voice tone
  9. Repetitive actions, in spite of potential harm to themselves or others (such as head banging or rocking)
  10. Strong adherence to rituals, with strong negative reactions to their disruption
  11. Physically uncoordinated
  12. May become engrossed in details of objects, like toys, without understanding the purpose of the object
  13. Strong sensitivity to sensory input, such as light, sound, and touch
  14. Indifference to temperature or pain signals
  15. Lack of imaginative play in childhood
  16. Picky with foods and textures

Depending on the degree to which these symptoms affect a person’s life and ability to function independently, an autism spectrum disorder may be diagnosed. Often, symptoms may become more difficult to deal with during teenage years. A person may develop more skills to socialize with others in adulthood, and they may even live independently in less severe cases. The best thing to do is to watch a child if they start to exhibit any of these symptoms in ways that are out of the ordinary for their age group during their development. Early detection and intervention may make it easier to use therapeutic treatments that work on their behavior and language in an effort to improve their interaction and communication skills. Though they do not typically outgrow their symptoms toward reaching adulthood, people can learn skills through treatment methods that can help them cope with the disorder and enable them to function more comfortably in society and in response to their often overwhelming environments.

It is difficult for children with autism to enjoy socializing, on top of their communication difficulties, due to the teasing that they may experience in school and other settings. As adults, they may have difficulties in the workplace, experience family stress associated with their disorder, and difficulty living independently. One young autistic student’s poetry assignment that went viral through expressed his challenges feeling “odd” and “new” to other people around him who laugh, that he feels like he doesn’t fit in, and that he hopes that the way he is will one day be accepted in spite of being different from his peers.

A “proper” treatment for autism is difficult to find. Though many therapy methods exist — such as intensive treatments that involve the person’s entire family as well as long weekly time commitments for behavioral and language interventions — there is no one-size-fits-all approach for a few reasons: first, the disorder manifests itself on a spectrum of symptoms and combinations; and secondly, each ASD is considered a “constellation of disorders” of its own.

Autistic children are not beyond help by any means. While there is no “cure” for ASDs, some children with autism at a high-functioning level may learn positive adaptive skills to the extent that their symptoms no longer meet all of the diagnostic criteria for an autism spectrum disorder.

How is Asperger’s different from autism?

Asperger’s syndrome is another common diagnosis of the developmental disabilities on an autism spectrum. One of the most distinguishing features of Asperger’s compared to autism, according to the Autism Society, is “less severe symptoms and the absence of language delays.” A child with Asperger’s is likely to have typical cognitive function and only seem to be behaving slightly differently from his or her peers.

Some of the characteristics that would distinguish a child with Asperger syndrome from a neurotypical child of his or her age may include slight modifications to speech patterns. With regard to the interpersonal aspects of speech, a child with Asperger’s syndrome may not understand the flow of conversation in which people equally ask questions and give answers or voice opinions. While language usage ability is typically developed comparable to neurotypical children, a child may use pitch, tone, speed, inflection, volume, and rhythm differently than what would be expected of their age and culture. For example, they may speak either much more loudly or softly than the majority of their peers, or be particularly rhythmic as they speak. They may even show a difference in the way they use formalities in situations that may or may not otherwise require them to be used. However, a child’s intelligence and language development, when considering a diagnosis, are normal for their age even though they may have significant interpersonal functioning difficulties. A child with Asperger’s may very well grow up to live an independent life, especially if their parents seek out early intervention. A diagnosis begins with an evaluation, where a medical professional (who has experience with autism spectrum disorders) obtains a history of your child’s development and progress, and observes their behavior. There has been a rise in recent years of Asperger’s diagnoses, and all statements have not been evaluated about whether this is because it is developing more often, or if medical professionals (and parents who understand child development) are more aware of the signs and symptoms in order to take a closer look at children’s behavior. Regardless, early intervention in working with children on their social and communication skills greatly increases their chances of doing well socially and functioning independently as an adult.

Because autism spectrum disorders often are accompanied by other issues, physical or mental (such as depression, anxiety, and sometimes other neurodevelopmental conditions such as epilepsy), it can sometimes be complicated to determine a treatment route for the various conditions a person with autism or Asperger’s is experiencing. While statements have not been evaluated and backed by the FDA, some people have noticed that cannabis, which can treat a lot of the accompanying conditions and symptoms on their own, have had a positive effect on autism spectrum disorders in some instances.

Autism spectrum disorders often have symptoms that are affected not only by neurology, but by a system in the body called the endocannabinoid system. The system has receptors for chemicals called cannabinoids, which are similar to — you guessed it — chemicals found in the cannabis plant. So, these receptors can receive the chemicals from the plant in addition to the ones produced by the body itself.

There has been some research that has found not a link, but a correlation to the number of cannabinoids in the brain and the behavioral issues shown by people with a genetic marker for autism. Additionally, cannabinoids affect certain functions such as sleep, learning, and understanding, which are common areas of difficulty in people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Cannabidiol, or CBD oil, has also been shown to be effective (up to a certain dosage, past which symptoms can actually worsen) for some epilepsy patients. While it is never wise to smoke hemp and marijuana (smoking has an increased risk of lung damage), some states have actually approved medical marijuana in the form of CBD oil and pills (or oils made from hemp seeds) for autism due to the positive effects many parents have reported anecdotally in their children’s behavior. These parents claim to have seen a decrease in their child’s aggressive behaviors.

I’ve heard of cannabis… what are terpenes and what do I need to know about their uses?

Terpenes” is a word used to describe a large, diverse range of chemicals produced by plants (and also some insects!) in order to ward off predators. They can either protect the plant from herbivores by producing a strong odor, or can attract predators of the insects and animals that would otherwise eat the plant or harm its growth. Terpenes are another classification of chemicals (besides cannabinoids) found in Cannabis sativa.

This image shows the different classifications of terpenes, their effects, and the plants that they are found in. As you can see, many of the effects include both physical and mental responses to the chemical. These responses can sedate, calm, increase memory and alertness, elevate mood, and enhance the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, a cannabinoid).

Increasing information about terpenes and the plants that produce them may lead to further insight on their uses for autism spectrum disorders. From the information we currently have, many of these different types of terpenes (hemiterpenes, monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, diterpenes, sesterterpenes, triterpenes, sesquarterpenes, tetraterpenes, polyterpenes, and norisoprenoids) can be used for the various symptoms of autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’s, whether the symptoms are physical or mental. It may be wise to consider the fact that some terpenes can enhance the effects of THC and CBD, so be sure that the increased effect of either of these chemicals will not worsen symptoms of one condition in an attempt to treat another condition by using terpenes. Taking this into consideration with your doctor is wise, as it could make a huge difference as to whether terpenes and cannabinoids could be beneficial or harmful for your or your child’s condition.

For more information about terpenes, see our article, 22 different terpenes and what they are good for.

The Cannabis Connection

Some people may be interested in which chemical compounds would be best in autism treatment. While the statements in the following slideshow have not been evaluated by medical researchers, it gives some information on the different strains of medical marijuana that are grown to have varying levels of either THC or CBD. They affect the body differently, and either chemical may be related to positive outcomes whereas another may be related to negative outcomes.

Top Medical Marijuana Strains for Autism from Curt Dalton
CBD and THC work differently with the endocannabinoid system. Both compounds can influence autism spectrum symptoms, but because they work differently they may pose certain increased risks for one autism symptom even if they benefit another. Let’s take a look at how they work:

  • THC directly activates the receptors found in the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Because of this, it can affect brain function when ingested or otherwise taken into the body for processing (such as smoking). THC is the part of marijuana that often contributes to its negative connotations because it’s the part that gets you high.
  • CBD works with the ECS in an indirect way. So, it doesn’t have to activate the CB1 or CB2 receptors directly and can reach receptors that are found anywhere in the body — including the skin. That’s why topical creams like CBD oil or hemp creams can affect conditions such as eczema.
  • THC and CBD can be separated when extracted from the cannabis plant. So, it is possible to find tinctures, pills, or oils that use one and not the other, if the effects of one chemical are a concern for someone considering medical marijuana uses.

All in all, it seems that cannabis research with regard to autism is a perfectly valid area of medical interest, and deserves further inspection. It is often difficult to study it as a medicinal plant because of legal restrictions on procurement across the United States, although some other countries are looking into it more in recent and upcoming studies. When looking into medical marijuana, it is important to speak with your doctor about anything that you are considering, and recognize that it has not yet been approved by the FDA as a regulated form of medicine. Due to its nature as a plant, the quality of soil and the amount of sunlight a plant receives, as well as other factors, can affect its potency and it is always best to be mindful of these complications when considering an unregulated treatment option. Because of this, some companies have started producing synthetic cannabinoid medicines, and they are still in their early stages and do not yet reflect the wide variety of THC/CBD combinations that are often used. Do your best research, talk with medical professionals, and be sure to avoid any sources that may not be selling a pure product or make false or unsupported claims. Best of luck!

Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
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