I know three people who have been diagnosed on the Autism spectrum. One a family member, one childhood friend and one, a recent colleague. Each present with different characteristics, all with varying displays of disability and incredible intellect and all with differing views about why and how this disorder came to be a part of their existence. What follows is an overview of what I’ve learned about the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and its connection to medical cannabis.
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that, as the name suggests, can be diagnosed by levels of disability and a wide ‘spectrum’ of symptoms. Autism is associated with non-neurotypical behaviours, social interactions and communication abilities. Signs of ASD often arise by preschool age, though due to the wide nature of this disorder some patients can go mis- or undiagnosed for years, even into adulthood. Symptoms may include, but are not limited to; difficulty in verbal and nonverbal communication, lack of empathy, lack of interest in sharing, heightened sensory sensitivities, repetition of words or actions, anxiety, self injurious behaviour, intense and focused interests.
What are conventional treatments?
Currently, treatments are centered around three main avenues: medicinal, nutritional and behavioural.
Typical prescriptions may include selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) – to help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression and anti-psychotic drugs – to address behavioural problems. In many cases a cocktail of other pharmaceuticals is also prescribed to counteract side effects or to calm non-neurotypical or aggressive behaviour. Certain nutritional changes can be made to help reduce inflammation in the gut such as eliminating gluten or dairy products, though evidence regarding this is often disputed.
Many families who have the resources choose to hire varieties of therapists or specialist to help with unique behaviours or symptoms of their child. Conventional treatment options are still very limited, and though we don’t know all the side effects and long term consequences of cannabis, we could make a similar comment on conventional treatments available. Often medications merely treat the peripheral symptoms, irritability, aggression, anxiety; there is no one size fits all prescription for this disorder.
What’s the deal with cannabis as a treatment for ASD?
As with most medical cannabis research, investigation of medical cannabis as a treatment for symptoms of ASD is said to have begun at a grassroots level. Following research and wide publication on the use of medical cannabis for children with epilepsy, and in light of the fact that many ASD patients also often suffer from variations of epilepsy, momentum has grown for the case of ASD and medical cannabis.
Initially families have typically taken a” leap of faith” and treated with cannabis on the “down-low” despite a dearth of evidence-based research and often without conventional medicine supervision or support. Yet, along with these “leaps of faith” we have seen a rising amount of compelling anecdotal evidence; enough to instigate further research. In fact there are several studies in the works designed to assess if and how cannabinoids (the compounds found in the Cannabis plant) could be used as a treatment option for autism.
A 2013 study showed that those with autism have an increased number of a particular type of cannabinoid receptor, CB2, in comparison to the control group. Another study conducted in the same year noted variations in the endocannabinoid system may contribute to autism. These connections between the human endocannabinoid system and autism pose a strong indication that cannabis treatment for people living with ASD may indeed have promising therapeutic effects. As per usual in the current cannabis climate, more research is needed!
What is ground breaking at the moment
Currently research is being conducted in Israel, (a country known for it’s forward thinking attitudes towards R&D in medical cannabis) to assess the effects of cannabis on patients with autism aged 5-29. The study, conducted at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center by director Dr. Adi Aran, is a stepping stone toward the eventual aim of isolating which compounds are effective for ASD and in what ratios.
This study comes off the back of another conducted by Dr. Aran, which demonstrated the positive effects in treating epilepsy with high dose CBD in conjunction with very low dose THC, utilizing fellow Israeli Cannabis researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam’s theory of the entourage effect. With groups such as MAMMA (Mothers Advocating for Medical Marijuana Association) and other similarly minded support groups acting as information centers, they are also, at a grassroots level advocating for further research into using cannabis as a treatment.
Mums at CannaTech
Unlike groups such as MAMMA some early pioneering mums have struck out on their own. Sourcing their medication for their autistic children when all other avenues had failed them. Some of these children have show wild success, such as Joey, the son of Meiko Hester-Perez and Yuval, Abigail Dar’s son. Both of these wonderful women spoke at CannaTech 2017 along with Janie Maedler another inspiring mum, about their struggles and the remarkable results they found when treating with medical cannabis.
Meiko’s son Joey was diagnosed with severe autism at 16 months of age, he was prescribed varieties of medications over the years, until she turned to cannabis when Joey was 10 years old. After consulting with experts and more or less becoming an expert in the process, Meiko began treating her son with edible medical cannabis. Within weeks she noticed improvement, in the years since we hear Joey is thriving. It is hard to express the joy you can see in this mothers face when she tells of the first time Joey truly looked at her in the eyes, a common symptom of ASD is lack of ability to hold direct eye contact. Meiko and Joey’s journey has inspired her to create the Unconventional Foundation for Autism an informational and support website. Her accolades and acknowledgments are wide ranging, both in her professional career and he work in the Autism sector.
Abigail Dar’s family call Israel home. Her son Yuval has been diagnosed on the spectrum, manifesting in anxiety, restlessness and violent outbursts. 10 years of treatment later and many years requesting the Israeli Ministry of Health allow her son to receive medical cannabis, Yuval finally has his medicine. Abigail says “it’s been a life changer” and attests that her son has exhibited any self-injurious behaviour since. These two warrior mums, Meiko and Abigail, have teamed up for a kick-starter to fundraise for a global information center centered around Medical cannabis as a treatment for Autism.
It’s hard to relegate their stories as simply “anecdotal.” And it should be known that it is these very cases that have encouraged more investigation and study into cannabis as a treatment for this complex disorder.
Research into the correlation between cannabinoid therapies and autism is still in its infancy. Patience and persistence is needed to continue to push for, safer and more effective treatments for those living with and caring for a loved one with ASD. We hope that more research can validate its therapeutic uses to make such information available to all who need it. Considering the current alternatives for children with ASD -opioids and antipsychotic treatments – there is hope that in cannabis there may be a more natural, less harmful, truly healing treatment available in the future.