CBD for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Table of contents

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), more often simply referred to as autism, includes a broad range of conditions that are characterized primarily by challenges in basic social skills, repetitive behaviors as well as speech and nonverbal communication.

Autism does not consist of one type, but instead has many subs-types and lie on a spectrum that is most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because of this, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. How different autism sufferers learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged with some people requiring a significant amount of support in their daily lives, while others may live entirely independently, or requiring little support.

There are several factors that influence the development of autism. For instance, ASD is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues. These concomitant symptoms and diseases can aggravate the symptoms of autism or interfere with treatment.

Signs and symptoms of ASD usually appear around the age of two or three, however some associated developmental delays can present as early as 18 months of age. Research shows that the earlier the intervention and treatment of ASD, the more positive outcomes can be expected later in life for those suffering from it.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Types

The three types of autism spectrum disorders are:

Autistic disorder: The most severe type, this is sometimes referred to as “classic” autism. People with autistic disorder have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests.

Asperger syndrome: This is a milder type of autism spectrum disorder. While people with Asperger’s don’t struggle intellectually, they do have difficulty with social interaction.

Pervasive developmental disorder: This type of autism describes individuals who meet some, but not all, of the criteria for the other subtypes.

Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder

While symptoms vary across the autism spectrum, two common indicators of ASD include:

Social communication challenges

People with autism have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication. Often, they don’t understand the appropriate way to use spoken language, tone of voice, figures of speech, facial expressions, eye contact, and gestures, for example:

Restricted, repetitive behavior

These behaviors can include repetitive body movements, repetitive motions with objects, ritualistic behaviors, narrow or intense interests in specific topics, and resistance to change.

Other autism symptoms and signs can also include:

Autism Spectrum Disorder Medications and Treatments

Although doctors haven’t identified a cure for autism, there are treatment options that can aid people with ASD in their everyday life that can include a combination of medicines and behavioral interventions.

Pharmaceutical Interventions

There are no medications that can cure ASD, but can help manage problems with aggression, irritability, behavioral reactivity, self-injury and repetitive behaviors. Certain medications may also help reduce high energy levels and hyperactivity, aid with focus, reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression or manage seizure activity.

Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions

The core interventions for helping people with ASD are aimed at managing the core challenges of behavior and social interactions, for which several treatments have proven to be helpful. The include:

CBD and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Research and Scientific Evidence

There is an increasing interest in the use of cannabinoids as a treatment for mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders. This has also given rise to an increase in investigations into the effectiveness of Cannabidiol (CBD) for the treatment and management of ASD symptoms, especially those related to behavior, with many researchers concluding that it has the potential to help those suffering from autism.

Cannabidiol Based Medical Cannabis in Children with Autism- a Retrospective Feasibility Study

Researchers published the results of a 2018 retrospective study in Neurology . Their objective was to assess the efficacy, tolerability and safety of CBD as an adjuvant therapy for refractory behavioral difficulties in children suffering from ASD.

They administered oral CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at a ratio of 20:1 (a similar ratio as that of hemp-derived full-spectrum CBD oils) to sixty children with confirmed diagnoses of ASD. The dosage was increased to effect a maximum dose of 10mg/kg per day. Efficacy and tolerability were assessed using various questionnaires including a modified Liverpool Adverse Events Profile, the Caregiver Global Impression of Change (CGIC) scale, the Home Situations Questionnaire–Autism Spectrum Disorder (HSQ-ASD) and the Autism Parenting Stress Index (APSI).

Data showed that, following treatment, behavioral outbreaks improved significantly in 61% of patients, anxiety and communication problems improved in 39% and 47% of patients respectively, and disruptive behaviors were improved on average by 29%. In addition, parents reported a reduction in stress. They concluded that this preliminary study provides so much support for the feasibility of CBD as a promising treatment option for refractory behavioral problems in children with ASD, that they have launched a large, double-blind, placebo-controlled cross-over trial with 120 participants.

Oral Cannabidiol Use in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder to Treat Related Symptoms and Co-morbidities

Reporting on the experiences of parents regarding the effects of oral CBD on co-morbidities such as aggression, hyperactivity and anxiety in their children with ASD, clinicians published their results in Frontiers of Pharmacology in 2019.

In this study, parents of children with autism were instructed to administer a full-spectrum CBD oil with a CBD:THC ratio of 20:1 at a concentration of 30%. The recommended daily dose of CBD was 16 mg/kg (maximum daily dose 600 mg), and for THC- daily dose of 0.8 mg/kg (maximum daily dose of 40 mg) for at least 30 days. The following four ASD co-morbidity symptoms were evaluated: hyperactivity symptoms, sleep problems, self-injury and anxiety using various measures and parental reports.

After objective analysis by an independent group of specialists including a pediatric neurologist specialized in ASD, clinical pharmacologists and pharmacists, results showed that CBD has the potential to improve ASD co-morbidity symptoms significantly. Their study found that, of the 53 children that received CBD for a median of 66 days, self-injury and rage attacks improved by 67.6% in 34 patients, hyperactivity symptoms by 68.4% in 38 children, sleep problems by 71.4% in 21 children and anxiety improved by 47.1% in 17 patients.

The effect of cannabidiol (CBD) on low-frequency activity and functional connectivity in the brain of adults with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

In another 2019 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, this time in adults, scientists investigated the effect of CBD on low-frequency activity and functional connectivity in the brain of individuals with and without ASD.

To investigate this notion, a task-free fMRI was acquired in 17 healthy men and 17 men with ASD. Testing took place following the double-blind oral administration of 600 mg CBD or matched placebo in random order. The fractional amplitude of low-frequency fluctuations (fALFF) in brain activity was measured across the whole brain. In the even of CBD significantly altering fALFF, they also tested if functional connectivity of those regions were also affected by CBD.

Their results showed that results regarding the effects of CBD were primarily driven by the ASD group, showing significantly increased fALFF and functional connectivity in, as well as between cortical regions that are consistently implicated in autism. The researchers concluded that patients with ASD respond differently to CBD, with the implication that it may affect the complex behaviors these regions modulate.

Cannabinoid treatment for autism: a proof-of-concept randomized trial

Currently, there is no established pharmacological method of treating autism spectrum disorders, and the efficacy of drugs in relation to behavioral disorders resulting from ASD is relatively low. Due to the increasing number of reports on the effectiveness of CBD in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders, it was decided to conduct a randomized, double-blind study published in 2021, comparing the effects of two oral solutions (extract of whole cannabis plants and pure cannabinoids) in 150 participants.The participants of the study were children and adolescents (5-21 years) who were diagnosed with ASD due to DSM-5 criteria, having moderate or greater behavioral problems.

It is in this study that the SWOT analysis was applied. After 12 weeks of treatment, there was a 4-week rest period to switch to the second 12-week treatment. The scheme was intended to allow for an analysis within the group of participants, comparing two types of treatment. In order to assess the abnormal behaviour related to ASD, two measurements of indidator results: HSQ-ASD questionnaire nad GCI-Improvement questionnaire in order to assess behavioural problems. The second-tier results involved SRS-2 Scale and APSI-Index. On the CGI-I scale, 49% of the 45 participants who received cannabinoids from whole plants responded (significant or very significant improvement) compared to 21% of the 47 who received placebo (p = 0.005). Of the 45 subjects who received pure cannabinoids, 38% responded to treatment, which was not significantly higher than placebo (p = 0.08). However, an improvement in the total SRS-2 score was noted, which was significantly greater after the use of whole plant extract compared to placebo. The median improvement was 3.6 points after placebo (n = 36) compared to 14.9 points after whole plant extract (n = 34; p = 0.009) and 8.2 points after pure cannabinoids (n = 28; p = 0.80).

In the study described above, it was found that the whole plant extract containing CBD and THC in a ratio of 20:1, improved destructive behavior, which belong to the symptoms resulting from disorders from the autism spectrum. The use of CBD in the treatment of the autism spectrum gives promising results in the area of resistant behavioral problems. These data suggest that cannabinoids should be further investigated in ASD.

Cannabis and cannabinoid use in autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review

Approximately 40% of children struggling with autism spectrum disorders do not respond well to conventional medicine. Standard treatment includes several psychotropic drugs that do not treat ASD but are intended to reduce improper behaviors such as psychomotor arousal or aggression. Therefore, the researchers began to look for alternative therapeutic methods. In 2021, a systematic review of research on the use of cannabinoids in autism spectrum disorders was published.

Out of the 425 articles found, 9 studies were selected for analysis. The review included studies from Israel, England, Brazil, Austria and the United States. Five studies used cannabis extract in the form of CBD-rich oil, while two studies used CBD in the form of an oral solution. One study used dronabinol (a synthetic THC analogue) dissolved in sesame oil, and the last study used cannabidivarin (CBDV). The obtained results of studies using cannabis to improve behaviour indicate a significant reduction in symptoms such as: attacks of self-mutilation and anger, sleep problems, psychomotor arousal, anxiety, aggression. Attention and social interactions have improved.

The results of the analyzed research show that cannabis and cannabinoids can be effective in treating behavioral disorders resulting from ASD. The promising results obtained in this review may be related to the action of phytocannabinoids in cannabis on the regulation of the endocannabinoid system. It is likely that in the future cannabis, CBD or other cannabinoids will be used as a therapeutic alternative in alleviating autistic symptoms.

Anecdotal Evidence

In addition to the scientific evidence indicating that CBD shows potential for relieving many symptoms of autism as well as those of co-morbidities, anecdotal evidence also shows that CBD may help manage ASD symptoms in some patients. Any search of Facebook groups or Google return 100s, if not 1,000s of results, with many people claiming CBD has helped them, or their child. In addition, online parenting and autism resources are also indicating that there is an upsurge in interest from people interested in using CBD for ASD.

Bottom Line

The many properties of CBD has the potential to provide beneficial actions for relieving various aspects, symptoms and co-morbidities in patients with autism. As discussed, CBD may play an important role by, in particular alleviating symptoms of both refractory and disruptive behavioral problems, as well as psychological issues such as anxiety and sleep problems, potentially by changing the cerebral functioning of the brain areas implicated in ASD. However, research is still in its infancy, so it is important to always consult a medical practitioner before using CBD for ASD. Your treating physician or medical specialist can monitor dosage, symptom severity and other clinical parameters including drug interactions and contraindications.