CBD & Autism: Does It Really Work?

CBD & Autism: Does It Really Work?

DEFINITION 

CBD may be the perfect treatment option for people suffering from autism. 

This is a disability that affects the social, emotional, and communication development of an individual, having significant effects on an individual’s ability to lead a normal life.

Many now believe that CBD could be the key to reducing the severity of these symptoms in the long run.

INTRODUCTION 

Autism makes up one of the biggest minorities in the world, with sufferers thought to make up 1% of the population. It is a neurodevelopmental condition that develops in the womb and often becomes apparent during infancy or early childhood. 

Despite the number of sufferers, however, this condition has remained a medical mystery as far as treatments are concerned since it was discovered. 

In the past, many researchers have tried and failed to treat the condition with traditional drug therapies, but a pioneering Israeli study may change this. 

In this study, which involved treating autistic children with high-CBD cannabis oil for seven months, problematic behavior reduced by 80%, and communication also improved. 

Understandably, many are hesitant to believe these claims after years of no treatment options, which is why we have put together evidence to determine whether CBD can be considered a viable treatment for autism.

 

What Is CBD? 

cbd definition

Cannabidiol, often abbreviated to CBD, is one of the thousands of compounds produced by the cannabis species of plant. 

These compounds are split into several different classes, with CBD belonging to the cannabinoid class. 

Also involved in this class is THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid responsible for the ‘high’ people experience when consuming cannabis in its natural form. 

This has led to extreme confusion about whether CBD does the same, but this isn’t the case. 

In fact, CBD is completely non-psychoactive, meaning consumers will not receive a high when consuming this cannabinoid in its purest form. 

This, alongside the fact that CBD is the second most prevalent active ingredient within the cannabis plant species, makes it perfect for medical use. 

When used for this purpose, the CBD used is most often derived from hemp plants, which have higher volumes of CBD and lower volumes of THC than other cannabis plant species. 

With such high counts of CBD available in a single plant, the extraction process is generally easier, and the result is more cost-effective for users. 

In the US, using hemp also makes CBD more accessible as it is federally legal throughout the U.S as of the end of 2018.

 

What The Science Says About Using CBD To Manage Autism 

science cbd

When it comes to using CBD to manage autism, it’s understandable that many people are skeptical.

Despite the vast amount of testimonials, autism is a condition that has been targeted by pseudoscience with treatment options that hard children with autism, and it’s easy to believe CBD could do the same. 

Even with testimonials from individuals and families of autism sufferers about how CBD has positively impacted their lives, it can be difficult to believe without scientific evidence to back it up.

The good news is that this evidence does exist, and it primarily relies on the body’s natural endocannabinoid system (ECS). 

This system is extremely important, although many aren’t taught about it, as it’s responsible for regulating functions including motor control, pain, memory, mood variations, and immune functionality.

The main thing you need to know about this system is that there are two types of cannabinoid receptors, known as CB1 and CB2, which are responsible for producing and releasing cannabinoids around the body.

The CB1 receptors are known as peripheral receptors, which means they are primarily found in the brain and spinal cord. The CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are mostly found in the white blood cells and are responsible for maintaining the immune system.

Initially, it was thought that CBD attaches itself to these receptors to enhance the natural release of endocannabinoids, but this is no longer believed to be the case.

Further investigations have instead revealed that CBD works by triggering the body to use and produce more of its own natural cannabinoids. 

Although our neurobiological understanding of autism is extremely limited, it’s believed that most of the symptoms associated with autism can be regulated by enhancing actions in the endocannabinoid system. 

In particular, using CBD to trigger the body to use more chemicals is important, as it has been linked to a number of benefits that may help with autism symptoms.

One of these scientific benefits is that CBD can be used to trigger the endocannabinoid system to reduce neuroinflammation in people with autism. 

Although we don’t know whether neuroinflammation is the result or the cause of autism, it has been detected in the post-mortem brain specimens of ASD patients in past scientific research. 

Many scientists also believe inflammation in the gut could be partly responsible for some autism symptoms, but that the indirect activation of the receptors from CBD could help to reduce this.

 

CBD for Autism: What The Research Tells Us 

research cbd

While there is currently no cure for the core symptoms of autism in children or adults, many research studies have revealed that CBD could become a great way of targeting the symptoms.

While not abolishing them completely, some researchers have looked into specific symptoms and have had surprising results regarding the improvement with the administration of CBD. 

One of the biggest things to face in children with autism is difficulty with regulating their emotions and dealing with sensory input.

This can lead to extremely challenging behavior, especially at the severe end of the spectrum, which many caregivers struggle to deal with. 

It’s also distressing for the child themselves, which is why researchers have made it their mission to discover ways of treating it.

So far, the evidence of CBD being used as a viable treatment has been best supported by the Israeli study we mentioned at the start of this article. 

Conducted by Dr. Aran and originally published in Neurology, their observational study found CBD improved challenging behavior problems by 80%. 

This study took place over the course of 7 months, where 60 participants were administered with daily CBD supplements, suggesting it’s a result that could be maintained over time. 

Although this is, as other research on the topic, a pioneering study that would need further evidence to completely back up their claims, it’s an extremely promising early result that goes some way to proving the benefits of CBD. 

Another area in which researchers are keen to find a solution is the social situation deficit that many with autism seem to struggle with.

There hasn’t been much explanation as to why children with autism struggle with this aspect to such a degree, but one study has discovered that CBD may be the answer for reducing this.

In fact, this study stumbled upon this answer almost by accident, while investing the effects of CBD on Dravet’s Syndrome in 2017. 

It was an animal-based study where the mice were administered with a genetic model of Dravet’s Syndrome but were also found to exhibit autistic-like social interaction deficits. 

When administered in small doses, it was found that CBD greatly reduced the amount of autistic-like social interaction deficits exhibited by the mice subjects.

Although this on its own does not tell us for definite that CBD can be used to reduce these symptoms, other meaningful studies have reported similar results.

This includes the study focused on behavior above, where almost half of the patients exhibited an improvement in their ability to socialize and understand social situations.  

Children with autism also commonly experience difficulties with sleep, which are regularly attributed to high anxiety and stress levels.

While most parents of children with the condition are led to believe this is something they’ll have to live with until their child outgrows this symptom or moves out, this isn’t the case.

In fact, research into CBD has found that it is an extremely effective way of dealing with serious sleep disorders.

In one study, it was found that 48 out of 57 patients experienced a reduction in sleep problems after just a month of using CBD.

In another larger study specifically targeting those with extreme sleep difficulties, more than 400 volunteers used a mobile app to record their quality of sleep. 

It was found that, day after day, CBD significantly reduced insomnia symptoms, even more effectively than its cousin compound THC. 

Although not considered to be autism itself, 1 in 3 children diagnosed with ASD is also diagnosed with epilepsy.

Of this number, 1 in 3 children will be diagnosed with a severe, drug-resistant form of epilepsy, like the Dravet Syndrome we mentioned earlier. 

This can exacerbate symptoms of autism-like social interaction abilities and delay important milestones in an individual’s life. 

In one study of 23 children struggling with this kind of epilepsy, it was found that 9 experienced a 50% reduction in seizures after three months of using CBD. 

In addition to this, there was an overall median reduction of 32%, with 4 patients branded completely seizure-free.

By dealing with the comorbid neurological conditions, of which most children with autism will suffer at least one, you can often see improved results with the condition itself. 

As we have seen, by using CBD for this purpose, research shows us that you will also be improving different aspects of the condition itself, such as behavioral and social aspects. 

Despite these research studies providing us with promising results, however, none of them really tell us why CBD helps with autism.

One research study conducted by the University of Insubria, however, has done just that. 

Although they cannot provide all the answers, they have been able to identify a link between endocannabinoid system deficiencies and imbalances and autism itself. 

This information was crucial for further developments in the field and has since allowed other professionals to delve deeper into this information to provide more in-depth answers.

In 2018, researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University took on this responsibility.

In the study they conducted, they found there was a significant difference in the levels of anandamide, a neurotransmitter produced by the endocannabinoid system, between autistic and non-autistic individuals.

Unsurprisingly, those with autism have far lower levels of this chemical than neurotypical individuals, which could explain some of the symptoms of the condition. 

Sometimes referred to as the bliss molecule, having enough anandamide allows the body to accurately maintain memory, thought processes and learning abilities. 

This could go some way to explaining why children with autism have difficulties with short term memory in particular and struggle to learn things like how to interact appropriately in social situations. 

By giving CBD to those with autism, it would trigger the body to produce more anandamide alongside other cannabinoids. 

As a result, these things would improve, going some way to explain why other studies have found CBD to improve social interactions and challenging behavior.

 

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What People Say About Using CBD To Manage Autism 

manage autism

Although official research and scientific understanding of CBD and autism is in its beginning stages, there have been testimonials from people with autism, their families and healthcare providers about the benefits for some time. 

These are largely positive, revealing how managing autism becomes a lot easier once CBD supplements had been introduced. 

One such case was told by Dr. Giovanni Martinez, a clinical psychologist from Puerto Rico, who used CBD for a child with severe autism who couldn’t speak.

Speaking about the child, Kalel Santiago, he said, “He started using [CBD] three weeks ago. He was a full non-verbal patient. He only made sounds.” 

This changed as soon as he started CBD, with the clinical psychologist going on to add, “I’m very impressed with the language he has acquired”. 

This progression of language and communication skills have also enabled him to cut down on his previously challenging behavior, he reports. 

He has also become a lot more responsive with his caregivers and close acquaintances, laughing every time he hears his name being called. 

Another account comes from a parent of a seven-year-old child with autism, who turned to CBD in desperation after failing to control her son’s symptoms with traditional drug therapies. 

In her forum post, she talks about wanting to give him the calm he desperately needed without the “crazy side effects of prescription meds”. 

In just a few weeks, she reported several benefits, one of which was that he was reportedly falling straight to sleep where he had previously spent 30-45 minutes yelling and bashing his head against the wall.

She also said that he had gained more verbal communication skills from before CBD, at which point he could only speak a handful of words when prompted to do so.

The most remarkable thing in her opinion, however, was the fact that he seemed happier than he ever had been in the past. 

It isn’t just children with autism who can benefit from CBD, however. The forum post mentioned above led to another response, from an adult who was diagnosed with severe autism as a child. 

The woman in question didn’t speak until middle school and was provided with a whole host of antipsychotics that only made her symptoms worse. While she turned to therapies such as ABA, they provided limited and temporary results.

It wasn’t until 20 years later when the individual with autism turned to CBD for back pain that they realized it could positively impact their disability, too.

They said that taking this cannabinoid helped them to relax and gave them the support they needed to focus more.

It also brought her verbal communication skills further, to the point where she was able to communicate her medical concerns to her doctor, something that was previously impossible. 

There’s also hope for those with autism who need support well into adulthood, as is the case for Dina Dedes, 19, and her parents. 

Speaking to a news website, her parents explain how her severe autism often led to extremely violent episodes that would leave both parents with bruises and other injuries as a result.

Eventually, when these occasions became more serious in nature, her parents traveled from doctor to doctor until the fifth one agreed to write a CBD prescription for Dina. 

In response to this prescription, Dina’s mother said, “I thought we would see a difference within maybe three to four weeks and I’m not exaggerating, we saw a difference within four hours… She just calmed down.”

This is a sentiment shared by the woman’s school, who called the day after and asked if there had been a medication change because her behavior had drastically improved. This was despite her parents not informing them of the CBD prescription. 

Following this prescription approval, they now provide Dina with a dose of CBD in the morning and at night, which seems to have had significant impacts on her behavior. 

Although things are not perfect and she still struggles with other symptoms of her autism, her parents admit that things are a lot easier and calmer since the introduction of CBD into their lives.

 

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Safety Concerns About Using CBD To Treat Autism 

cbd concerns

One of the biggest safety concerns about using CBD to treat autism is that it is addictive, but this isn’t the case.

This has been backed up by a report from the World Health Organization, who states, “In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential… To date, there is no evidence of public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.” 

Despite this, limited research into the effects has left many medical professionals with questions surrounding its safety. 

In an interview with news site Today, Dr. Scott Hadland, a Boston Medical Center Pediatrician, referenced young people in particular.

He said, “We don’t know what some of the downstream harms might be of exposing these young people to these medications [such as CBD] in the long term.”

There has been some evidence that there is a risk to children from taking CBD. At the FDA’s first public hearing into CBD in May 2019, a leading biosciences vice president said that CBD is potentially toxic to the liver. 

A recent study on mice confirms this, with those provided with higher doses of CBD showing signs of liver damage within 24 hours. 

Although there haven’t been studies into the potential liver damage on children, in particular, it’s reasonable to suggest from these studies that it could be a potential danger. 

This is something people should be especially careful of with their children, as their livers are not developed and can, therefore, process fewer toxins before beginning to fail. 

Without clear regulations stating how much a child should be given, it’s easy for parents without much knowledge to jump in with too much for maximum effects in a way that may backfire on their child in the future.

If you don’t know where to start, it’s generally recommended to start with doses of around 25mg twice a day. 

You can then increase this dose by 25mg every 3-4 weeks until you find a dose that works for your child. 

If you notice any untoward symptoms, you should stop treatment immediately and consult a doctor for further advice. 

It’s for these reasons, and other unknown medical symptoms that pediatricians have said further clinical trials must be undertaken before CBD is considered a viable treatment for autism. 

Dr. Scott Hadland supports this, saying “we have to put the brakes on and see the strengths that are tolerated and the long term effects of these drugs”. 

Despite these warnings, however, many parents are continuing to experiment with CBD for their children with autism to positive outcomes.

One such individual is mom Alison Rogers, who described CBD as a breakthrough for her son, Hudson, in the above Today interview.

She says, “It’s gotten him closer to the quality of life most of us take for granted.” 

Roger’s said that she had first tried prescription drugs, but these had worsened his aggressive symptoms, but his safety and that of those around him at risk.

She goes on to describe one of his particularly bad episodes before CBD, saying “he attacked one of his brothers and slammed his head against the floor”. 

After trying CBD following a recommendation from a mom in Hudson’s class, she says things couldn’t be more different.

“He’s more relaxed,” She states, “And we see more attempts at communication. We get better eye contact”. 

So far, she hasn’t seen any negative side effects and continues to go out of her way to get her son’s CBD, even with the heavy regulations in her state. 

In support of Alison Roger’s is the World Health Organization who released a report where they state, “CBD is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile”. 

In their opinion, reported adverse effects usually occur as a result of interactions between CBD and other medications taken by the patient. 

This means that if you are considering giving your child with autism CBD while they are already on other kinds of medication, you should consult your doctor first to ensure it is safe to do so. 

The FDA also warns that you should not use CBD products that have not been verified. 

In their statement for the Today interview, they said, “we continue to be concerned at the number of drug claims being made about products not approved by the FDA that claim to contain CBD”. 

To put it simply, in regards to whether CBD is safe for children, the answer is not completely safe, but the risks are minimal.

If you are going to use CBD for your child with autism, it’s worth making sure that you use small doses and gradually increase them over time so you can note any risks to their health. 

You should also only ever use FDA approved products, and make sure you consult your doctor if your child is already on medication to ensure it’s safe beforehand.

 

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How To Choose The Right CBD Product? 

right product

 

When choosing the CBD product for your child with autism, the first question you need to ask is whether you’re going to choose a full spectrum or isolate CBD.

Full-spectrum CBD, otherwise known as “whole-plant”, includes a variety of other beneficial cannabinoids as well as plant terpenes and flavonoids. These are not added artificially; instead, they are kept in throughout the extraction process from the original plant.

CBD isolate, on the other hand, removes all of these cannabis compounds so that you are only left with CBD. 

For medicinal purposes, including treatment for autism, it’s generally recommended that you stick to full-spectrum CBD for maximum benefits. 

This is supplied through a variety of different CBD products, including CBD edibles and tinctures, but the most common form is CBD oil.

The oil is a good option for children with autism as it is dropped under the tongue with a dropper and is absorbed within seconds. 

You can also get it in many different flavors to appease your child’s sensory needs and avoid meltdowns or complete refusal to take CBD in the first place. 

It’s important that you do your research before purchasing CBD, however, as there are many “snake oils” on the market that claim to have CBD in but don’t.

These are generally unregulated and may include something that you could potentially harm your child.

To avoid this, you should ask the manufacturer or supplier of the CBD you plan to purchase for third-party testing results or a certificate of authentication (CoA).

If they are unable to provide either or both of these products, then it’s a good idea to search for another brand that can provide your child with the safest options going forwards. 

As aforementioned, there are many different products you can look into for your child, so if they don’t get along with the oil it’s worth investing in other products before giving up altogether.

 

Summary 

CBD is a cannabinoid attached to lots of misconceptions thanks to the plant species it comes from, but it’s clear to see that it can be extremely useful for children with autism.

When used in a medicinal sense, this cannabinoid is derived from hemp cannabis plants, with the final product containing less than 0.3% THC to abide by federal laws. 

This allows children with autism to receive the best possible outcome from the cannabinoid without unwanted psychoactive side effects, such as the ‘high’ commonly associated with cannabis.

These medical benefits are highly backed by the scientific understanding of how CBD can be used for autism.

Although we have a limited neurobiological understanding of autism, scientists agree that using CBD to indirectly activate the receptors can help the body better regulate itself, relieving autism symptoms.

To date, scientists have discovered two biological ways that these symptoms can be minimized; by reducing the neuroinflammation found in post mortems of people with autism, and reducing inflammation in the gut. 

Despite limited biological understandings, however, there has been a lot of research which supports science’s stance that CBD is beneficial for autism patients.

One of the most promising outcomes to come from recent studies into the topic is the reduction of challenging behavior in children with autism who consume CBD supplements. 

According to one pioneering Israeli study quoted throughout this article, this reduction could be seen in as much as 80% of all ASD patients. 

Further research into the topic seems to suggest that CBD may also increase social interaction abilities, and reduce symptoms such as sleep issues, anxiety, and other comorbidities. 

If research and scientific understanding of CBD and autism aren’t enough to convince you, anecdotal evidence also seems to support the idea of CBD being a good treatment option.

Everyone from clinical psychologists to caregivers and people with autism themselves are noting reported improvements in areas such as behavior, communication and social interactions from using CBD. 

With this being said, it’s important to remember that CBD is not currently approved as a treatment for autism, and there are some potential side effects of using it.

This may include potential liver damage and unknown consequences of long term use for those who choose to give CBD to their children from a young age.

Despite these valid concerns, however, the World Health Organization doesn’t consider them serious enough to warn people against using CBD. 

They do say that if you or your child with autism are taking other medications then you should consult your doctor, which you should also do if you start noticing any unwanted side effects. 

If you’ve read the positives and negatives to CBD and autism and still want to give it a go, you will receive the best results by opting for a full-spectrum CBD product.

The best product option for autistic people tends to be oils from a sensory perspective as they can be bought in many flavors and dissolve quickly when taken orally.

If you or your child doesn’t get along with this, however, remember that other options you can try before giving up completely if you are committed to testing the benefits of CBD and autism for yourself.

Regardless of your final decision, we hope you have found this article helpful and can make better-educated decisions about CBD to treat autism going forwards.