Last Updated on
By Tina Richardson
A growing number of studies highlight how CBD for autism may help treat symptoms associated with the developmental disorder, and cognitive impairment.
As medical research continues to shed light on the medicinal benefits of the cannabis plant, one naturally-occurring compound, in particular, has drawn the attention of the public — namely cannabidiol (CBD), a primary cannabinoid present in both hemp and cannabis. This non-psychoactive compound has been shown to treat symptoms of everything from chronic pain issues to anxiety disorders and even epileptic seizures.
Key findings from independent studies have encouraged medical researchers to explore long-term CBD use for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. But what about developmental disorders, such as autism?
In this post, we explore the viability of using CBD oil for autism by taking a closer look at prevalent symptoms related to the disorder, as well as CBD’s own track record in treating them.
Understanding Autism: Its Related Symptoms & Their Effects on Cognitive Development
Autism is formally known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which refers to a number of complex neurodevelopment disorders that ultimately affect social communication and behavior. Symptoms of ASD affect cognitive skills as well as daily functioning, and usually become apparent by early childhood.
The term “spectrum” specifically refers to the levels of impairment that can occur in individuals with ASD. Some children and adults with the disorder are entirely capable of carrying on everyday aspects of independent living, while others require constant hands-on support even for basic activities. Since 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has included formerly separate disorders like Asperger syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) as part of ASD, given they fall under the criteria of “an assessment of intellectual disability, social impairment and language difficulties.”
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Understanding CBD: Its Therapeutic Potential & Interaction With The Body
As a non-psychoactive compound, pharmaceutical CBD is already approved for use not only in adults, but in children and pets as well. The key to CBD’s medicinal and therapeutic potential is in its interaction with the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS), which is a network of receptors located throughout the body. By binding to these receptors, CBD can effectively modulate the uptake of vital neurotransmitters — such as norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine — to and from the brain. This is how CBD can improve the symptoms of a wide variety of disorders including pain, inflammation, anxiety and even mood-related conditions.
Full-Spectrum CBD and The Entourage Effect
It’s worth noting that independent studies have bolstered countless anecdotal testimonies reporting the benefits of full-spectrum CBD over isolated CBD. Full-spectrum products come with various secondary cannabinoids and terpenoids intact, allowing for the so-called “Entourage Effect” to increase CBD’s therapeutic potential via its interaction with terpenes producing anti-inflammatory, analgesic or even anxiolytic effects.
How It All Comes Together: The Viability of CBD Oil for Autism
Autism spectrum disorder is more than a developmental impediment affecting social skills and behavior. It comes with a variety of accompanying symptoms and disorders produced directly from it. Symptoms are easier to spot and produce a limited degree of impairment. The most common examples of these include:
- Abnormal posturing, tone of voice and/or facial expressions
- Indefinite delay in learning to speak and/or developing language skills
- Poor language and/or reading comprehension
- Avoidance of or aversion to eye contact
While the consequences of ASD-related behavioral symptoms are limited to varying degrees of social impairment, behavioral disorders can be much more serious, with the potential to lead to self-harm or inappropriate public behavior. According to prevalent autism studies, some of the most common accompanying disorders associated with ASD are:
This is where CBD and its modulatory effects on the endogenous cannabinoid system come in. Let’s take a look at how CBD is shown to ameliorate the common ASD-related disorders listed above.
– Autism and epilepsy
Medical research consistently establishes an association between epilepsy and autism; up to 32 percent of individuals with epilepsy also meet the diagnostic criteria for autism, and roughly 30 percent of children with ASD develop epilepsy before reaching adulthood.
Ongoing clinical trials show that CBD functions as a potent anticonvulsant, whose effects are improved when used in tandem with antiepileptic and anti-spasmodic terpenes as part of full-spectrum CBD products.
– Autism and seizures
Seizures are the single most commonly occurring neurologic complication with ASD. Seizures happen because of the abnormal firing of brain nerves and have been categorized into two main types: focal and generalized. Focal seizures involve changes in consciousness, repetitive unusual behaviors such as twitching or blinking, erratic sensory changes and so-called “auras,” or strong feelings of impending seizures. Generalized seizures are classified as either absence, tonic, clonic, atonic and tonic-clonic seizures, each with their own unique behavioral symptoms.
As with epilepsy, CBD’s potent anticonvulsant properties make it viable for ameliorating seizures. In fact, pharmaceutical CBD (ex. Epidiolex) is already commonly prescribed to treat adults and children suffering from seizures, such as in cases of Lennox-Gestaut syndrome (LGS) and Dravet syndrome.
– Autism and depression
ASD can severely limit an individual’s social prospects, and the resulting isolation often leads to depression accompanied by frustration, wallowing or suicidal thoughts. These only compound the issue, and can lead to self-harm if not treated with therapy and/or medication.
CBD helps treat depression via its positive interaction with serotonin receptors in the brain, making it a natural and superior alternative to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) — a class of antidepressant drugs known to produce severe side effects such as vomiting, nausea, and restlessness.
– Autism and anxiety
Anxiety disorders occur quite often in individuals with ASD. The most common types associated with autism are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety and specific phobias such as anthropophobia — also known as fear of people or “the other.” This is all likely due to both diminished self-esteem and the autistic individual’s own hyperawareness of his or her social impairment.
Studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have shown CBD to lower behavioral symptoms of anxiety in animals. Physiological symptoms associated with anxiety, such as hyperventilation and increased heart rate, were also seen to have been improved by CBD.
– Autism aggression
Individuals with ASD who are already grappling with anxiety disorders or depression may exhibit signs of aggression at times, particularly while he or she is struggling with a task. According to the American Autism Association, this is completely normal and can be avoided by simply not “overloading” the individual with multiple tasks at once, or distracting him or her from the task at hand.
CBD’s potent anxiolytic and stress-reducing properties can greatly reduce ASD associated depression or anxiety disorders that spiral into episodes of aggression and can be doubly effective if paired with mood-elevating or sedative terpenes (such as linalool) as part of a full-spectrum CBD product.
How CBD Oil Can Greatly Improve The Quality of Life For Individuals With ASD
Given CBD’s successful track record in ameliorating disorders that are known to occur concurrently with ASD, there is a solid case for its viability — not for treating autism itself, but for improving the overall quality of life of an individual within its spectrum of disorders.
Given a child with ASD will already be learning impaired to some extent, it’s important that he or she not have to contend with sporadic seizures to complicate his or her development further.
The same can be said for adolescents, already afflicted with a substantial degree of social impairment; if CBD can assist in reducing symptoms of anxiety or depression, it’s viability as a form of medication or supplementation deserves serious consideration.
It’s likely that with time and research, we will see an increase in pharmaceutical CBD prescriptions and full-spectrum CBD recommendations for individuals with ASD.