CBD and autism

Autism is a complex and often distressing condition that leaves many families desperate for answers and viable treatment options. CBD has been put forward as an alternative to prescription medication and even behavioural therapy, but of course all parents want to know – can it really help?

What is autism?

Autism is not a disease but a developmental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and interacts with others. The term autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is now used to refer to a number of related neurological conditions that were once considered separate. These include autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified, and Asperger syndrome. 

Signs of autism usually appear in early childhood, and can be very distressing for parents and families. It is a lifelong condition, but evidence has shown that early intervention can have a huge impact on a child’s quality of life, and how they will develop as an adult.

An estimated 1% of the population worldwide is affected by autism, but in some countries, this is much higher – in the US the figure is around 1 in 59 people. It is not known exactly what causes autism, but there are a number of factors that are believed to play a role. 

These include:

  • Advanced age of either parent (40 or older)
  • Family members with autism
  • Low birth weight
  • Infectious diseases during early childhood
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Lack of vitamin D during early development
  • Foetal alcohol syndrome
  • Lead or mercury poisoning

Signs of autism

One of the reasons that autism was renamed autism spectrum disorder is that there is both a spectrum of conditions that fall under this umbrella, and each with a spectrum of severity. Many people have the idea of the stereotypical person with autism who lacks social skills but is something of a savant. There are some people whose autism may present this way, but it is important to remember that the symptoms are not the same for everyone. 

Some common signs include:

  • Aversion to eye contact
  • Delayed speech or language problems (many autism sufferers are non-verbal)
  • Not using or responding to common gestures
  • Ignoring or interrupting
  • Not sharing enjoyment with others
  • Not recognising joking, sarcasm or non-literal expressions
  • Difficulty understanding other people’s points of view
  • Solitary habits
  • Repetitive behaviour such as rocking, jumping or hand flapping
  • The need for routine (e.g. the same daily schedule)
  • Fixation on a particular subject or activity
  • Irritable or aggressive behaviour

Autism and epilepsy

In recent years, researchers have begun to find links between autism and epilepsy. The exact relationship between these two conditions is not yet understood, but it’s believed that some of the brain abnormalities that are found in children with ASD can also contribute to seizures. While epilepsy generally occurs in around 1% of the population, the rate among people with ASD is more than 30%. The reverse is also true, meaning that children with epilepsy are more likely to develop some symptoms of autism.

Available treatment for autism

One of the biggest frustrations that families face is that there is no cure for autism. Early intervention can be incredibly useful improving quality of life, but due to the many different ways that ASD can affect people, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Doctors will largely try to alleviate symptoms of the disorder with things such as anti-anxiety medications, medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and antidepressants. Other treatments focus more on behaviour, and can include applied behavioural analysis (ABA), occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical therapy.

How CBD can help with autism

In recent years, many families have been turning to CBD to help with the symptoms of autism. A study of people who had opted for this treatment stated a number of reasons for their choice – they found that CBD had fewer side effects, gave them a sense of control over the condition, and was more effective than other treatments. And in some cases, the cost of CBD is significantly lower than prescription medication.

One of the key benefits of CBD is that it is one product that can treat a number of different symptoms, both physical and mental, rather than needing a different medication for each issue. 

Here are some of the ways in which CBD can help with autism:

  • Reduces the frequency and severity of seizures
  • Alleviates social anxiety
  • Reduces dysfunctional social behaviour
  • Helps to stabilize mood swings and irritability
  • Aids relaxation and sleep
  • Reduces addictive behaviour (such as video games, television)

There have also been links drawn between autism symptoms and gut biomes – the microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. This link has been evidence by the successful reduction in symptoms through treatments such as dietary and probiotic intervention. CBD can also take the place of this treatment, as it is shown to have protective effects on the digestive system.

As well as aiding with the symptoms of autism, CBD can provide benefits for the source of the problem – the brain. People who suffer from autism have an increased level of oxidative stress in the brain, which in turn affects the levels of antioxidant serum proteins. And it’s these proteins that are needed for language acquisition. CBD can help to protect the brain from oxidative stress, which offers a new pathway to dealing with one of the more complex issues arising from autism.

Evidence for CBD and autism

The research specifically regarding CBD and autism is still in its early stages, but there have been a number of studies that show some promising results. A study published in 2018 by researchers in Israel looked at 60 children with autism spectrum disorder. After treatment with oral CBD, behavioural outbreaks were reduced in 61% of participants, communication improved with 47% of participants and anxiety was reduced in 39% of participants.

A study published in 2019, also conducted in Israel, examined the data for CBD use with 188 children with ASD. These participants were given a treatment of oil with 30% CBD and 1.5% THC over a period of six months. After this time, the number of participants reporting a good quality of life was increased from 31% to 67%. 89% of participants showed a decrease in rage attacks, and the number of patients who could dress and shower independently almost doubled, from 26% to 49%.

While there is still a great deal of research to be done, the high amount of anecdotal evidence, combined with the minimal side effects, means that many families are willing to try CBD to help with their children’s autism.

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