As tricky as it is to diagnose autism in children and adults, it’s even trickier to treat, with a vast array of symptoms and therapies to consider. Cannabis is one autism therapy that’s gotten a closer look lately from the scientific community.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects 1 in 44 children, but has no known cause. Both genetics and environment could play a role. The spectrum of autism refers both to the complexity of the disorder and the fact that symptoms and severity vary. No cure exists for autism spectrum disorder, and treatment can be tricky.
“These are people who have difficulty communicating – in particular socially. They may speak very well, but they can’t carry on a conversation. Then you have the opposite end of the spectrum, where you have children and adults who are entirely nonverbal,” said Dr. Doris Trauner, a pediatric neurologist at the University of California, San Diego.
People on the autism spectrum tend to have restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. ASD may also display in neurodivergent ways of learning, moving, or paying attention. The 3 main symptoms of autism that often stand out: 1.) finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling, 2.) getting very anxious about social situations, and 3.) difficulty making friends or a preference for being alone.
Autism in Children
Often detected during a child’s first 3 years of life, children with ASD focus on following a routine that may include normal behaviors. They may not show interest in other children and may not want to make eye contact with other people. ASD can keep a child from developing social skills. A child with ASD may struggle to interpret facial expressions or emotions in other people.
Autistic children and teenagers might refuse or ignore requests, behave in socially inappropriate ways, like taking their clothes off in public, behave aggressively, or hurt themselves or other children.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects a child’s nervous system, growth, and development. While some children improve or recover from autism over time, the vast majority of such children still have difficulties that require therapeutic and educational support.
How is Autism Detected? No single medical test can diagnose ASD. Certain guidelines can help diagnose ASD in children before age 2. The goal of treatment is to maximize the child’s ability to function by reducing symptoms and supporting development and learning.
How is Autism in Children Treated? Treatments for autism in children include behavior modification programs that teach social skills, movement skills, and thinking (cognitive) skills. Other treatments involve special education programs to help the child focus on social skills, speech, language, and self-care.
Some children with autism are prescribed pharmaceutical medications to help treat their symptoms if they show severe aggression or self-injury. The only medications approved by the FDA for children with autism are Abilify and Risperdal, antipsychotic medications that can help with irritability and aggression, but also come with a risk of side effects. These drugs can predispose autistic children to the development of diabetes or cardiovascular problems.
Autism in Adults
For an autistic person not diagnosed in childhood, receiving an ASD diagnosis later in life may be helpful for many reasons. Research shows that one of the common diagnostic tests for autism in adulthood, the ADOS-2, may be fairly reliable. But a doctor needs to recognize a person’s symptoms in order to refer them to testing. A diagnosis is important, regardless of when it is diagnosed, as it can provide better access to services and support. People who did not receive a diagnosis in their younger years may have milder symptoms, which can be more difficult to recognize. Some people may never get a diagnosis. Adults who have been living with ASD for much of their childhood (even if they didn’t know they had it) may be better at masking the signs and symptoms.
Cannabis for Autism
Cannabis has long been considered a a bit of a mystery for both parents treating their children and in adults who carry the disorder. Studies on non-psychoactive cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabidivarin (CBDV) have shown promising results in animal models and in early-stage clinical trials, but this research does not yet support widespread use.
Anecdotally, parents across the world have reported success with medicinal marijuana therapy for their autistic children. Scientists have been working to uncover more of ASD’s mysteries. Here’s where the research has led us in recent years:
- This 2021 systematic review of studies investigated the clinical effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. The review concluded that cannabis and cannabinoids could be effective alternative therapy for ASD symptoms.
- Several previous trials have identified improvements in children with ASD who consume plant-derived CBD extracts. A 2021 survey conducted by Autism Parenting Magazine also found that 18.6% confirmed they use CBD for children on the spectrum to help relieve a variety of autism symptoms.
- In 2022, the University of California, San Diego began conducting a double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study to determine whether Epidiolex, an oral purified CBD solution developed by GW Pharmaceuticals, might be helpful to children with autism.
- A September 2022 clinical analysis reported in the journal, Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology suggests adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who partake in cannabis consumption may find it can help with symptoms.
Does Autism Cause Seizures?
Autism is not thought to cause seizures, although researchers believe some of the brain abnormalities associated with ASD may also contribute to seizures. According to some research, electrical activity in the brain of a child with autism shows epileptic discharges more often than in people without ASD. CBD is thought to modulate nerve cell messages in regions of the brain regulating anxiety, executive function and behavior, blocking signals to key neuronal receptors that, when overstimulated, may trigger seizures.
Currently, only 12 states include autism as a qualifying condition for a medical cannabis recommendation. Five other states and the District of Columbia are considered “autism-friendly”, meaning doctors can recommend medical cannabis for debilitating conditions. In 33 states, patients still cannot access medical cannabis specifically to treat autism.
Efforts to add autism to the list of qualifying conditions in Ohio continues, with House Bill 60 having passed in the House on 3/2/22 and saw a first Senate Committee hearing in March as well. Contact your legislators to urge them to pass House Bill 60 in the Senate. You can also add your name to a Change.org petition in support of cannabis and autism here.
If other contributing conditions such as seizures or chronic pain are part of the autism diagnosis, a medical marijuana doctor may be able to recommend a medical cannabis card for these other conditions.