When we talk about cannabis treating autism, we mean it in the palliative sense rather than the curative sense. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder which probably begins expressing biological markers before birth. No one has tried giving cannabis to children younger than 2 years old so we can’t yet say whether or not it may reduce autism risk in neonates or infants.
Cannabis is a palliative for autism – it gives symptomatic relief. We see from the DSM IV diagnostic criteria that there are 12 ‘core’ symptoms spanning 3 distinct areas of deficit: Social interaction, Communication, Imagination.
Symptoms of autism can be positive or negative. Skeptics of cannabis for autism often claim that the compounds in cannabis are ‘drugging’ the autistic person (i.e. having a sedative and/or relaxant effect). On closer inspection, however, it appears that cannabis has an effect on both positive and negative symptoms of autism – indicating that there is more to it than simply ‘knocking the child out’.
Recent studies have suggested that with autism, while not sharing the same sets of symptoms or degree of expression of symptoms, nearly all autistic people have similar differences in brain structures when comparing with non-autistic people’s brains.
Furthermore, when we look deeper into the science of how cannabis affects the brain, time and time again we find that cannabis is affecting parts of the brain that are affected in autism, resulting in a shift in the way the brain operates – making it operate more like a non-autistic brain.
(Yes, there are other ways to ‘correct’ regions of abnormal blood flow in the brain but they are not always easy to administer and may have side effects. Psychosis is a well known temporary cure for autism but it’s probably even more disabling than autism itself!)
To further complicate matters. An autistic person’s behaviour may be exacerbated by underlying co-morbid conditions. Very common co-morbid conditions such as epilepsy, anorexia, anxiety, immune disorders, skin disorders, digestive disorders and sensory disorders can also be treated using cannabis or cannabis extracts.
Finally, let’s step into properly cynical shoes and state the obvious:
No-one knows what is really going on, biologically speaking, with the average autistic person so it follows that no-one really knows for sure why any particular drug may help any particular autistic person.
Even double-blind placebo controlled trials don’t tell us why. These only go as far as telling us whether or not the drug works and if it has any additional effects.
If you think that the UK should lead the world in cannabis for autism research, take a look at this.