Medical marijuana and the treatment of autism

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There is no cure for autism, and medical professionals use a combination of behavioural therapies and medications to help their patients. Now, however, anecdotal evidence from both families and doctors suggest cannabis-derived medicines may also help in the management of this complex condition.

Autism is a complex brain development disorder. While the number of patients diagnosed with this condition has increased greatly over the past years, our understanding of the disorder is far from complete.

UNDERSTANDING AUTISM

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that affects over 1% of the world population. While it is a lifelong disorder, early signs of autism are usually observed in children aged 2 to 3 years old.

Autism is not a single condition. Instead, the term refers to a complex range of conditions generally characterized by developmental challenges particularly in the areas of social skills, communication, and behaviour.

In its basic sense, autism affects how a patient develops. The exact signs or symptoms of the condition, however, can vary greatly from one patient to another.

Some people with autism may be nonverbal, meaning they cannot use words to express their feelings. Others, however, may be extremely verbal and actually love talking. Some patients may seem really gifted in areas like science and maths while others might be extremely creative.

Autism affects every patient differently, which is why it is defined as a spectrum disorder; patients with autism fall along a scale (or spectrum). Along this spectrum there are a variety of different symptoms or developmental challenges which affect each patient to different degrees.

KEY SIGNS OF AUTISM

While every autistic patient is different, there are some key signs and symptoms that help define the condition more clearly.

The developmental challenges autistic patients face can be loosely grouped into 3 main categories:

  • Communication and social: Patients with autism tend to experience difficulties communicating, socializing, and interacting with others. These kinds of challenges can involve struggling to identify nonverbal cues from other people (like interpreting body language or facial expressions) or even struggling to communicate an idea or emotion to another person using words.
  • Behavioural: Autistic patients also tend to display certain behavioural differences to non-autistic people. This can include having restricted interests, which is defined as showing a particularly strong or almost extreme interest in only a select number of activities, while showing almost no interest in others. Similarly, some Autistic patients may also demonstrate certain repetitive behaviour. For example, some patients may rely really heavily on following a specific routine, to the point where they might even need eat the same meals at specific times of the day.
  • Responsive: Patients with autism may also respond to certain environmental stimuli differently than we would expect from people without the condition. For example, they may respond very highly to subtle environmental stimuli which typically wouldn’t generate much of a response in a regular person. This could include being bothered by something as simple as a dim light. Alternatively, autistic patients may show almost no response to environmental stimulus that normally gather a strong response in regular people, such as being squeezed uncomfortably hard by another person, for example.

CAUSES OF AUTISM

The exact causes of autism aren’t clear. In 1998, a study published in The Lancet claimed that vaccines for conditions like measles, mumps, and rubella were associated with the condition. However, that study has since been retracted and the author eventually lost his medical license. There is no credible evidence that proves that vaccines cause autism.

Instead, there is a growing consensus that autism is a genetic condition, although not entirely. For example, children with autistic siblings are at a higher risk of developing autism (as high as 70% for identical twins or 30% for fraternal twins). However, this is not to say that autism is a condition necessarily passed down through the family. In fact, autism can sometimes be caused by genetic mutations that take place at the time of conception which were not present in the father or mother of the autistic child.

There are other factors that can increase the risk of autism outside of genetic factors. Advanced paternal age, for example, is one. The increased age of the father at the time of conception has been shown to increase the risk of autism in children.

Certain drugs have also been linked to autism. Most notably, valproic acid (found in anticonvulsant medication prescribed to epilepsy patients) can increase the risk of autism in children when taken by the mother during pregnancy.

HOW IS AUTISM TREATED?

There is no cure for Autism. Instead, medical professionals aim to work with patients to manage their condition via behavioral modification, social-skills coaching, and other behavioural therapies.

As every autistic patient experiences their condition differently, autism management plans vary greatly too. However, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting the efficacy of at least 2 early intervention methods. These are known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and the Early Start Denver Model.

Some other commonly used behavioural therapies that are considered effective in helping patients with autism include:

  • Floortime therapy
  • Pivotal Response Therapy
  • Verbal Behavior Therapy

While these models all vary, they share some important basic features like a certain amount of structured therapeutic activities per week, learning objectives designed to be reached by the patient, opportunities for the patient to interact with other developing peers, and more. These programs are usually adapted as a child grows and moves on to school or enters adolescence.

AUTISM AND CANNABIS

Just like autism is a complex condition that affects patients differently and to varying degrees, cannabis is also a complicated medicine that also has different effects from one patient to another.

While no clinical research has yet explored how cannabis consumption can affect patients with autism, there is some positive evidence from both doctors and parents with autistic children.

Mieko Hester-Perez, founder of The Unconventional Foundation for Autism, has openly explained her success treating her son Joey with medical cannabis. Her story is very similar to that of the Figi’s and even inspired the naming of new cannabis variety (known as Joey’s Strain) by Kushman Genetics.

One professional looking in to the effects of cannabis on autism is Dr. Giovanni Martinez, a clinical psychologist from Puerto Rico. One of Dr Martinez’s biggest successes came from working with Kalel Santiago, a patient who was completely nonverbal. By simply using a hemp oil spray rich in CBD twice daily, Martinez claims Kalel has finally managed to begin speaking.

The problem surrounding this evidence, however, is that it is anecdotal, meaning it’s not enough to convince doctors or medical professionals to prescribe cannabis or cannabis-derived medicines as a treatment for autism.

THE FUTURE FOR CANNABIS AND AUTISM

Although the state of Delaware and Pennsylvania already count autism as a qualifying condition for becoming a medical marijuana patient, more laboratory trials and clinical studies are needed before we can come to solid conclusions about how cannabis or its active compounds affect autistic patients.

However, this is not to discredit the success stories shared by people like Ms Perez or Dr Martinez. Anecdotal reports are important for helping to identify new areas of research Now we just need to conduct this research to find out the potential for cannabis in the treatment of autism.

Note: We have taken the utmost care and precaution whilst writing this article. That being said, please take note of the fact that we are not medical professionals of any kind. Cannabis.info is strictly a news and information website. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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