Marijuana and Autism: What to Know About Treating ASD in Adults with Cannabis

marijuana and autism

The relationship between marijuana and autism has been a topic of increasing interest in recent years. As researchers delve into the potential therapeutic applications of cannabis, there is a growing curiosity about whether it can offer relief for individuals living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While the use of medical cannabis for autism is still a relatively new area of study, preliminary findings suggest that it may hold promise in alleviating some of the challenges faced by adults with ASD. 

In this blog post, we will delve into what autism spectrum disorder entails, explore the signs of ASD in adults, and examine the emerging research surrounding the use of cannabis as a potential treatment option. 

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a multifaceted developmental and behavioral condition that typically emerges during early childhood and persists throughout a person’s life. This complex disorder does not discriminate, affecting individuals across all age groups, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, as highlighted by the Centers for Disease Control.

ASD encompasses a wide range of symptoms and manifestations, making it a challenging condition to define. It is characterized by difficulties in social interactions, both verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive or ritualistic behaviors. While severe forms of ASD are often identified in early childhood, individuals with high-functioning ASD may not be diagnosed until later.

What Are the Signs Of ASD In Adults?

Adults with ASD often face difficulties in various aspects of their lives. For example, interpreting the thoughts and emotions of others can be challenging, as they may struggle with understanding facial expressions, body language, and social cues. Additionally, regulating emotions, engaging in conversations, and maintaining a natural flow of communication can pose significant hurdles. For example, individuals with ASD may exhibit inflections in their speech that do not reflect their feelings and may engage in monologues on specific topics of interest. Repetitive or ritualistic behaviors, limited activity participation, and strict adherence to routines are also common signs.

At home, adults with ASD may display certain behaviors that reflect their condition. For example, they might meticulously arrange their collection of figurines or follow a fixed daily schedule. In public spaces like libraries, they may involuntarily make repetitive noises such as throat clearing. Expressions and sayings that are easily understood by others might confuse them. Additionally, coordination difficulties and a preference for individual games and sports rather than team activities can be observed.

In the workplace, adults with ASD may exhibit unique behaviors and communication patterns. For example, they might avoid direct eye contact during conversations, leading them to focus on objects or other parts of the surroundings. Some co-workers may perceive their speech as robotic, and they may strongly prefer maintaining specific arrangements of items on their desks. While they may excel in particular areas, such as math or coding, they may struggle in other aspects of their job performance. Understanding their boss’s feedback or gauging their emotional state can also be challenging.

It’s important to note that individuals with ASD can also possess exceptional talents in areas like visual skills, music, math, and art. In addition, approximately 40 percent of people with ASD have average or above-average intelligence.

Marijuana and Autism: Is Cannabis Effective at Treating Symptoms?

A groundbreaking observational study utilizing data from the UK Medical Cannabis Registry (UKMCR) run by Sapphire Medical Clinics sheds light on the impact of cannabis-based medical products (CBMPs) on autistic adults. The study revealed promising outcomes, indicating that treatment with medical cannabis led to reduced anxiety, improved sleep patterns, and enhanced overall health-related quality of life.

The research team analyzed self-reported outcome data from 74 ASD patients, with an average age of 33, assessing measures such as the Generalized Anxiety Disorder scale, Single-Item Sleep Quality Scale (SQS), and the EQ-5D-5L Quality of Life scale. The results demonstrated significant improvements in health-related quality of life, anxiety, and sleep at one and three months, with sustained positive changes even at six months.

One notable finding was the reduction in the prescription of benzodiazepines and antipsychotics by 33% and 25%, respectively, due to cannabis treatment. Moreover, the study reported that most patients (81.1%) tolerated CBMPs well, with mild or moderate adverse events for about 19% of participants.

Dr. James Rucker, a consultant psychiatrist at Sapphire Medical Clinics and senior author of the study, emphasized that CBMP treatment aims to alleviate associated symptoms rather than modify the core traits of autism. Symptoms such as general anxiety, social anxiety, severe insomnia, repetitive and distressing thought patterns, and emotional distress in response to change can profoundly impact the quality of life for individuals with ASD.

Although the study’s results are promising, the research team acknowledges the need for further evaluation through randomized controlled trials (RCTs). As a result, they have applied for funding to conduct an RCT of CBMPs in ASD patients who also experience anxiety and insomnia. This proposed trial could significantly advance the development of new interventions for this specific group.

Understanding the potential benefits of medical cannabis for adults with ASD requires exploring the interactions between cannabis and the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS, comprised of lipid-based neurotransmitters, plays a role in pain perception, inflammation, and various homeostatic functions. Cannabis interacts with the ECS by activating cannabinoid receptors, modulating receptor activity, and influencing the levels of neurotransmitters like anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

Research suggests that individuals with ASD may exhibit dysregulation within the ECS, potentially affecting the receptors or signaling. Lower levels of AEA, an endocannabinoid signaling molecule, have been associated with ASD patients. Medical marijuana may directly boost AEA levels in the body, offering a potential avenue for therapeutic benefits.

Genetic mutations in synaptic proteins like neuroligin-3 (NLGN3) and β-neurexins have also been linked to ASD and endocannabinoid signaling. These findings highlight the intricate relationship between cannabis, the ECS, and the underlying molecular factors associated with ASD.

While the study for marijuana and autism presents a significant advancement in the field, the research team emphasizes the need for further evaluation and the importance of conducting RCTs to inform guidelines and improve day-to-day care for individuals with ASD.

More: How Does Medical Marijuana Work In The Body?

Talk to a Pause Pain & Wellness Provider Today

If you’re seeking information about the potential benefits of medical marijuana for marijuana and autism, simply contact us at 833-940-5060 (8 am-5 pm CST) or visit one of our locations across Mississippi, including Oxford, Meridian, Flowood/Jackson, Tupelo, Olive Branch, Starkville, Hattiesburg, and Gulfport. Our experienced team of pain management doctors, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners can provide guidance and support regarding using medical marijuana as a potential treatment option for individuals with autism.