Autism or Autism Spectral Disorder (ASD) is a serious developmental disorder characterized by a host of symptoms related to the inability or difficulty to communicate, and also to function properly in normal social situations. A similar disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, is now classified in the autism spectrum as well as some forms of epilepsy. Autism is relatively common with more than 200,000 new cases every year in our country. There is no definitive cure and often this disease leads to chronic lifelong illness and debilitation. Symptoms include behavioral changes of compulsiveness or impulsivity, difficulty in communicating and making eye contact, repetitive movements, withdrawn and introverted behavior. Other symptoms include unusual body posturing, change in tone of voice, violent outbreaks, screaming, sleep disturbances, and self-destructive behavior. These conditions often lead to learning disabilities, and the inability to function normally in a group or in society. The degree of impairment varies in each case and some autistic patients can manage on their own, whereas many require constant attention and are unable to live independently.
This disorder usually starts in childhood, mostly in males, and persists throughout life with no known cure available. Various medications are provided on an individual basis often using tranquilizers, sedative drugs, fluoxetine, SSRIs, naltrexone, or other pharmaceutical agents. Autism can be so devastating and disruptive that the entire family can be adversely affected and their own lifestyle is drastically altered. Having an autistic child is a tremendous challenge for parents and requires exceptional care, patience, and understanding.
With the availability of medical cannabis now in our state and the popularity of CBD products in general, public opinion and uses for cannabis are changing rapidly. Parents with severely autistic children are always on the lookout for new therapies and some are asking if the use of medical cannabis is appropriate to help in this disorder. This article will offer some advice to those parents and also give a brief general review of the current knowledge and studies in this area. Indeed, it seems that cannabis products may be of possible benefit in some cases of severe autism and related illnesses. Let’s look at some studies and literature.
While early research on Autism and cannabinoids seems promising, many experts point out that the studies lack clinical evidence and some reports of success rely on anecdotal and random reports. Some experts are skeptical on the actual benefits. For this reason, there is no general consensus among clinicians as to the actual benefits, and some point out the possible drawbacks of using cannabis in children or young adults. However, it should be noted that the parents of autistic children are ultimately those who can decide if this therapy is helpful for their child. The patients themselves may be unable to communicate their feelings accurately, and a short doctor’s visit may not be of much benefit other than to obtain information on the effectiveness of treatment from the caregivers.
An Israeli study showed that cannabis treatment in 60 patients with autism showed improvement and a reduction in behavioral outbreaks in roughly 60% of the patients. These episodes of behavioral outbreaks can be difficult for caregivers and parents of autistic children, and any therapy to reduce them can be quite beneficial. On the other hand, the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes medical cannabis for use in children, but they have updated their policy to include a compassionate use clause. This clause specifies that some children with life-limiting or debilitating diseases may benefit from cannabinoids and these patients cannot wait for lengthy research projects and studies to be concluded.
The Autism Science Foundation has provided funds in order to study the use of cannabinoids in autism using rodent models of ASD, and current studies are being conducted but not yet completed.
GW Pharmaceuticals in Great Britain already manufactures epidiolex and Sativex to treat epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, and this organization is doing important research on autism. They have found that the success of using epidiolex in treating epilepsy has motivated them to develop a cannabis-based drug for another neurological disorder which, like severe epilepsy, has few treatment options: autism. They have found similar behavioral symptoms in epilepsy and autism and are trying to create a similar cannabinoid useful in treating autism, in addition to epidiolex for epilepsy.
GW Pharmaceuticals has been shipping their experimental drug for autism for research and it is a cannabinoid similar to CBD – CBDV (cannabidivarin). This research is being conducted by Dr. Eric Hollander who is the director of the Autism and Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Program and Anxiety and Depression program at Montefiore Hospital. They have noted that the anti-seizure effect of CDBV can also alter electrical activity in the brain and help reduce spikes in neural activity associated with disruptive or aggressive behavior. Dr. Holander notes that “In some of the animal models that are similar to autism, it was found that CBDV had important effects on social functioning, on decreasing seizures, on increasing cognitive function, and in reducing compulsive or repetitive behavior.” A human study was launched in April 2019 which follows 100 participants ages 5-18 for 12 weeks of treatment using CBDV. This study will be finalized in September of 2021.
Michael Morrier is another researcher in this field, and he is the program director of Child Behavioral interventions at the Emory Autism Center in Atlanta.
“Anything that’s new that can be something to help a family or an individual to really become a meaningful member of home, community, school, and society is going to be helpful.”
Additional newer studies are currently underway around the world on this topic but are somewhat limited and results not formalized. Parents and clinicians are hopeful that these results will show the indication of compounds like CBDV in the improved treatment of this disease. Because of the complexity of compounds in the plant, there is a need for identifying the specific substances which can be useful in this disease. Cannabis can be administered on a routine basis for these patients under the skill and guidance of medical professionals who are versed in prescribing medical cannabis as part of routine care. Dosing, methods of administration, and exact ratios of cannabinoids can be altered based on each patient’s individual response to therapy. Parents of autistic children will be the ones deciding if the treatment being used is proving effective. They are the chief caregivers and can see the results first hand, and they can determine whether medical cannabis therapies can offer help in an otherwise difficult disease to treat with current medications and techniques.
According to the Autism Science Foundation…
“Before you decide to embark on any new drug treatment for yourself or your child, we highly recommend you talk to your doctor and ask about potential benefits and risks based on your own child’s medical history with a full understanding of both evidenced-based and non-evidence-based treatments for ASD. Parents and autistic adults should carefully consider the costs, risks, and benefits of a drug that has not been proven effective or safe.”
Dr. Stanley R. Manstof
12201 Greenridge Drive
Boyds, Md. 20841
*MMCC Certified Provider
*American Academy of Cannabis Physicians
*Member Americans for Safe Access
*Technical Writer and Editor
*Member Society of Cannabis Clinicians
*International Cannabinoid Research Society
*Certified Patient Caregiver
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