Since the legalization of marijuana in many states across the country, researchers have turned their attention to the potential medical benefits of THC and CBD, the two most prevalent active ingredients in cannabis.
Derived from the hemp plant, CBD is a non-habit-forming ingredient that appears to have many legitimate medical benefits. It doesn’t produce the high that is typically associated with marijuana use; THC is responsible for that.
Reported health benefits of CBD include fewer instances of anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, and chronic pain. CBD also helps to reduce seizures in patients with epilepsy.
In relation to autism, multiple studies have achieved promising results for the application of CBD in the treatment of autism symptoms. CBD cannot cure autism — there is no cure for the disorder — but it can significantly impact some of the most troublesome symptoms of ASD, such as hyperactivity, aggression, and behavioral problems.
What Is CBD?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is an active ingredient in cannabis, and it is derived from the hemp plant. It is one of the ingredients in marijuana, but it does not cause a high on its own. Because of this quality, there is no risk of abuse or dependence on CBD, explains the World Health Organization (WHO).
Recent scientific research has identified many potential health benefits of CBD. The anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, neuroprotective, and analgesic properties of CBD make it an effective treatment option for a range of symptoms.
Recent data reviewed by WHO indicates positive effects of CBD on the following conditions:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Diabetic complications
The legality of CBD is constantly evolving. The federal government has not explicitly legalized it, but many state governments allow it in various forms. As long as CBD is derived from hemp plants, rather than marijuana, it can be legally produced and distributed.
CBD is gaining in popularity due to the growing number of common health complaints it can treat. CBD is believed to help alleviate the following health issues:
- Insomnia and other sleep issues
- Chronic pain
How CBD Can Affect Autism & Its Symptoms
CBD has the potential to safely and effectively treat some symptoms of autism. It cannot treat autism in itself, as ASD is not a curable disorder, but it can greatly reduce the severity of some of the primary symptoms of autism.
CBD has the potential to positively impact the following ASD symptoms:
- Sleep problems
Epilepsy commonly co-occurs with autism. Multiple studies have found CBD to be highly effective at reducing or entirely stopping seizures in epileptic patients.
Additionally, CBD can be an effective treatment for insomnia, where patients have difficulty falling and staying asleep. As patients benefit from better sleep, they are likely to experience less anxiety, lower levels of stress, and fewer aggressive behaviors. As a result, people may be able to better focus in therapy, learning essential life and communication skills.
In a 2018 feasibility study on the safety, tolerability, and efficacy of CBD as a therapy for behavioral problems in children with ASD, researchers observed encouraging results of the effects of CBD on symptoms of autism. Sixty children with autism were treated with oral CBD and THC at a ratio of 20:1. These positive results were observed:
- Behavioral outbreaks were much or very much improved in 61% of patients.
- Anxiety problems were much or very much improved in 39% of patients.
- Communication problems were much or very much improved in 47% of patients.
- Disruptive behaviors improved by 29%.
- Parents reported a 33% reduction in stress levels.
Research on CBD & Autism
A growing amount of research is focused on the impact of CBD on autism and its accompanying symptoms.
One recent study investigated the effectiveness of CBD for the treatment of autistic symptoms in autistic patients with and without epilepsy. Data suggests that non-epileptic autism shares underlying mechanisms with epilepsy, making CBD potentially helpful for patients without epilepsy as well.
In this study, 10 patients without epilepsy and 5 with epilepsy adhered to the CBD treatment regimen. All but one patient experienced an improvement in autistic symptoms.
After six to nine months of CBD treatment, the participants exhibited improvement in multiple symptom categories, including these areas:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Behavioral disorders
- Motor deficits
- Autonomy deficits
- Communication and social interaction deficits
- Cognitive deficits
- Sleep disorders
The majority of participants experienced an improvement of at least 30% in at least one category, with many participants experiencing at least a 30% improvement in a minimum of four categories. This study indicates a strong potential for CBD to increase quality of life for people with autism spectrum disorder.
A separate study investigated the effects of medical cannabis (primarily cannabis oil containing 30% CBD) on symptoms associated with ASD. The study followed the treatment of 188 participants with ASD from 2015 to 2017. After six months of treatment, data was collected from 93 patients who remained in treatment and the following results were observed:
- About 30% reported a significant improvement in symptoms.
- Almost 54% reported a moderate improvement in symptoms.
- Over 6% reported a slight improvement in symptoms.
- Nearly 9% reported no change in their condition.
Of the above patients, about a quarter of them reported experiencing at least one side effect, the most common of which was restlessness.
Overall, the study provides encouraging results that CBD can be a safe and legitimate treatment for some symptoms associated with ASD.
Types of CBD Autistic Children Can Easily Ingest
CBD is available in many different forms, each with its own pros and cons. When selecting the best form of CBD for your child, it is important to consider the CBD content your child needs and how they will best ingest it. Consult with your child’s primary doctor, and their team of specialists, to determine the best course of treatment.
Types of CBD products that typically work well for children include:
- Pure CBD oil. Pure CBD oil can be absorbed after being held under the tongue (sublingually), or it can be swallowed directly. If your child does not like the taste of the oil, it can be mixed with a spoonful of yogurt or other food or drink.
- CBD tinctures or liquids. Tinctures and liquids are blends of pure CBD oil with other natural oils and flavors. They can be swallowed or taken sublingually. They generally have lower levels of CBD than pure oil.
- CBD capsules. If your child is comfortable swallowing pills, CBD capsules offer a convenient way to consume pure CBD oil. CBD capsules can also come as a blend with other vitamins and minerals.
Selecting the right form of CBD for your child depends on their tolerance for swallowing medication or the tastes and smells of oils.
Pure oils are generally more expensive than tinctures or capsules, but they also offer almost immediate effects. Capsules must be digested before their effects will be felt.
When to Avoid CBD
Experts from Harvard Medical School explain that there are potential side effects of CBD. If your child is already prone to these symptoms, you may want to avoid CBD.
The following are the more common side effects of CBD:
CBD can cause increased levels of the blood thinner coumadin in the blood. Its presence can interfere with other medications your child may be taking, so it’s important to not give CBD to your child without first consulting a doctor.
An additional concern of CBD is that it is not yet a federally regulated substance. It is most commonly sold as a supplement, meaning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot guarantee the safety and purity of CBD products that are sold to the public. This means you must do your due diligence to ensure the quality of the product you purchase.
More research is continually being performed on the efficacy of CBD for treating different conditions, including autism. The more that is known about CBD, the more widely and safely available it will become.
- Cannabidiol (CBD): Pre-Review Report. (November 2017). World Health Organization.
- Cannabidiol (CBD) – What We Know and What We Don’t. (August 2018). Harvard Health Publishing.
- Cannabidiol Based Medical Cannabis in Children With Autism – A Retrospective Feasibility Study. (April 2018). American Academy of Neurology.
- CBD Oil as a Treatment for Autism. (February 2020). Verywell Health.
- The Link Between Epilepsy and Autism, Explained. (September 2019). Spectrum News.
- Effects of CBD-Enriched Cannabis Stavia Extract on Autism Spectrum Disorder Symptoms: An Observational Study of 18 Participants Undergoing Compassionate Use. (October 2019). Frontiers in Neurology.
- Real Life Experience of Medical Cannabis Treatment in Autism: Analysis of Safety and Efficacy. (January 2019). Scientific Reports.
- What Types of CBD Products Are Best for Children? (July 2017). ECHO Connection.
- An Update on Safety and Side Effects of Cannabidiol: A Review of Clinical Data and Relevant Animal Studies. (June 2017). Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.
- FDA Regulation of Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Products, Including Cannabidiol (CBD). (March 2020). U.S. Food & Drug Administration.