Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a group of lifelong neurodevelopmental conditions that develop in childhood and primarily cause sensory dysfunction and inhibit a person's communication, social, and cognitive skills. Some people consider ASD a part of their identity and even consider it a gift. But even for high-functioning members of the ASD community, living with the disorder isn’t without its challenges.
Symptoms can vary in type and severity depending on the individual and the type of ASD. But core symptoms include sensory difficulties and social and communication struggles. Some people with ASD also experience anxiety, stress, sleep disorders, irritability or aggression, agitation, neuroinflammation, and autoimmune diseases. About 25% of people with treatment-resistant epilepsy are on the autism spectrum.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 54 children in the U.S. have ASD. It occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, although it is about four times as prevalent in boys than girls.
There is no cure for ASD, and researchers are still investigating what causes it. However, there are ways to reduce symptoms and improve the quality of life for people living with ASD. One of these is CBD (cannabidiol).
How It Helps
No supplement or drug, including CBD, can alleviate the core symptoms of ASD, such as sensory and social communication difficulties. Typically, therapies such as applied behavior analysis, animal therapy, family therapy, behavior therapy, and anger management can help people with ASD to manage these challenges.
However, CBD can help alleviate some other symptoms, including anxiety, sleep difficulties, aggressive and self-injurious behaviors, agitation and restlessness, depression, and stress. Combined with therapy and other treatments, CBD can contribute to a better overall quality of life for people living with ASD.
CBD can also treat specific disorders, such as epilepsy, that often occur alongside ASD. The only cannabis-derived drug currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is Epidiolex, used to treat two rare, treatment-resistant forms of childhood epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
What the Research Says
There have only been a few studies exploring the effects of CBD on ASD, none of which have examined adult subjects. However, the evidence thus far is promising.
One study published in the "Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders" in 2019 evaluated CBD-rich cannabis's effects in 60 children with ASD and severe behavioral problems. Researchers found 61% of children showed improvement with treatment.
A larger study out of Israel observed the effects of full-spectrum CBD oil on 188 children with ASD between 2015 and 2017. The findings, published in "Scientific Reports" in 2019, were positive. Scientists assessed 60% of the children after six months. According to reports from the patients' caregivers, 90% of the children were less restless; 89% were less angry or aggressive; 88% were less anxious; 84% were less agitated, and 59% were sleeping better. At the beginning of the study, five of the participants had depression; all of these children showed signs of improvement with treatment.
Furthermore, while only 31% of patients reported having a good quality of life before treatment, 67% reported a good quality of life after six months of CBD oil. Overall, 90% of patients reported some improvement in their overall condition, while only 9% reported no change. Less than 7% of the patients reported a side effect of restlessness.
Why It Works
There is still much to learn about ASD and CBD. But we do know CBD influences the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS), an intricate network of endocannabinoids and receptors located throughout the brain and body. CBD helps the ECS function better by providing cannabinoids to supplement those the body already makes.
A 2018 study published in the journal "Molecular Autism" showed that people with ASD tend to have lower levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide than those without ASD. Similarly, individuals with disorders that often occur comorbidly with ASD, such as anxiety, seizures, sleep disturbances, and cognitive difficulties, tend to have endocannabinoid deficiencies or imbalances.
CBD can't cure ASD, and more research is needed to truly understand how and why it works for some people with ASD. But the overwhelming majority of anecdotal and observational evidence thus far indicates CBD could be a safe, effective, and natural treatment to alleviate specific symptoms and conditions like epilepsy that often occur along with autism.
As always, it's essential to consult with your doctor before trying CBD or any nutritional supplement.