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Though there’s much we don’t know about cannabidiol (CBD), some research has found that it may offer therapeutic benefits.

This includes easing symptoms related to anxiety and stress, both of which can be common conditions for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism.

If you’re exploring CBD for ASD, here’s what to know about the current research and how it may work.

ASD describes a group of neurodevelopmental conditions. There are five subtypes identified in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), a guide published by the American Psychiatric Association.

ASD is diagnosed more often in boys than in girls, and instances of ASD may be increasing. Symptoms usually present early, between 12 and 24 months, but they can also begin to appear earlier or later in life.

The DSM-5 classifies symptoms of ASD into two categories:

  1. Problems with communication and social interactions. This includes difficulties with:
    • Emotional-social reciprocity. For example, trouble sharing emotions or interests and maintaining back-and-forth conversations.
    • Nonverbal communication important to social interaction. For example, trouble understanding body language or communication cues, like eye contact.
    • Developing and maintaining relationships. For example, difficulty making friends.
  2. Repetitive or restricted behavior patterns or activities. This includes:
    • having an intense need to adhere to specific routines
    • exhibiting increased sensitivity to specific sensory stimuli
    • having fixated interests

A diagnosis of autism happens when a person displays all three symptoms from the first category and at least two from the second.

CBD is one of the many compounds found in the cannabis plant. It’s associated with health benefits, such as pain relief, improved sleep, and relief from anxiety disorders and addiction.

There are three types of CBD:

  • Full-spectrum CBD retains all components of the cannabis plant, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, federally legal full-spectrum CBD products will always have less than 0.3 percent THC.
  • Broad-spectrum CBD has all the components of the cannabis plant, except THC.
  • CBD isolate is pure CBD, with no other compounds from the cannabis plant.

You can find CBD in a range of products:

  • Oils and tinctures. These are liquids that are infused with CBD. They’re taken sublingually, or beneath the tongue. CBD oils are easy to dose, and can take about 60 to 90 minutes to take effect.
  • Edibles. CBD that you eat, like a gummy, is one of the most popular methods of consumption because they’re discreet and easily dosed.
  • Capsules. CBD capsules are swallowed just like any other pill. Dosing is easy, but it can take some time to notice any effects.
  • Topicals. CBD creams, lotions, balms, and patches are applied directly to the skin for on-the-spot relief.
  • Vape juices. Inhaling CBD is the fastest way to begin feeling effects, but there have been reports of lung injuries associated with vaping.

At this time, research is limited about the benefits of CBD for autism.

A 2018 study found that CBD oil may be effective in improving ASD symptoms in children, but the study advised that efficacy and safety should be further evaluated with large-scale clinical trials.

A smaller 2019 study looked at the effects of CBD for the treatment of autism symptoms in people with epilepsy. The study found improvement in all but one of the 15 people undergoing treatment.

Another 2019 study of 188 autistic people concluded that cannabis seems to be well tolerated, safe, and effective for symptom relief.

Finally, a 2020 study reviewed the therapeutic role of CBD in mental health, including as a treatment for ASD. It described CBD and CBD-containing compounds as helpful in alleviating symptoms.

Ongoing trials are currently investigating whether CBD has an impact on behaviors sometimes associated with ASD, including irritability and aggressive behavior, and whether it might reduce severe behavior problems in autistic children.

In general, the effectiveness of CBD may depend on the type. Some research suggests that taking THC and CBD together, along with other compounds in the cannabis plant, is more effective than using either cannabinoid alone. This theory is called the entourage effect.

Remember, a full-spectrum CBD product retains all the components of the plant and up to 0.3 percent THC. That’s not enough to feel “high,” but it could amplify the benefits of CBD.

While the current research is promising, there’s still not enough evidence to conclude that CBD is definitely helpful for ASD.

Keep in mind that CBD is not a cure-all, and that there are currently no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved over-the-counter CBD products.

CBD interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is active whether you use cannabis or not, and it plays a role in regulating internal processes, like mood, sleep, metabolism, and immune response.

The system has three parts:

  • Endocannabinoids. These are molecules made by the body. They’re similar to cannabinoids (like CBD).
  • Receptors. These are areas that endocannabinoids and cannabinoids can bind to. They’re found throughout the body. There are two main types: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors are typically in the peripheral nervous system.
  • Enzymes. These work to break down endocannabinoids after they’ve done their job.

While THC can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors to stimulate a range of effects, CBD interacts with the ECS differently. Instead of binding to CB1 and CB2 receptors, it’s thought that CBD may prevent endocannabinoids from being broken down, which means they have a greater effect on the body.

Another theory is that CBD binds to a receptor that hasn’t yet been discovered.

The FDA recognizes the potential benefits of CBD, but notes that more research is needed.

The FDA has only approved a single prescription CBD medication (Epidiolex), which is for the treatment of epilepsy. No over-the-counter (OTC) CBD products have been approved.

In an assessment on CBD, the World Health Organization notes that it’s generally well tolerated and has a good safety profile, with no effects indicative of potential for abuse or dependence.

Still, there are potential side effects. These can include:

  • diarrhea
  • changes in weight or appetite
  • fatigue

CBD can also interact with some medications. To avoid potential issues, it’s important to speak with your doctor before trying CBD.

This is particularly true if you’re considering CBD for your child, as they may react differently to the compound than adults do.

Since the FDA doesn’t guarantee that OTC CBD products are safe or effective, consumers must be responsible for shopping wisely.

Use these tips to find reputable brands and high quality CBD products:

  • Check the certificate of analysis (COA). A current, comprehensive COA is proof that a product has been tested by a third-party lab. Make a point of reviewing the cannabinoid potency to see if it matches the product’s label. Also check to see whether the product passed tests for contaminants, like heavy metals and molds.
  • Check for FDA warning letters or lawsuits. Look online to see if the CBD brand you’re interested in has received any warning letters from the FDA. The agency sends these if companies are making unverified health claims.
  • Look for transparency. Make a point of buying only from brands that are up-front about where they source their hemp and how they make their products.
  • Check the brand’s reputation and customer reviews. What are customers saying about the company and its products?
  • Be sure you’re buying real CBD. Don’t confuse CBD with hempseed oil. While both are derived from the cannabis plant species, hempseed oil comes from the actual hemp seeds and doesn’t typically contain THC or CBD. Additionally, keep in mind that Amazon prohibits the sale of CBD. That means any product listed there is likely fake.

While there’s no “cure” for ASD, there are therapies and treatments that can help address certain symptoms. These include:

Although they aren’t effective for everyone, there are also tools and techniques that may also be helpful, like:

While there isn’t a single diet that autistic people should follow, some advocates find that a specific approach to nutrition can help minimize behavioral issues. The focus is on a whole-foods diet, with no preservatives, sweeteners, or colors.

While more research is needed to verify whether or not CBD is effective for managing symptoms of ASD, early results are promising.

If this is something you’re considering, the best way to get more information about next steps is to talk with a healthcare professional.

Is CBD legal? The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the legal definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act. This made some hemp-derived CBD products with less than 0.3% THC legal at the federal level. However, CBD products containing more than 0.3% THC still fall under the legal definition of marijuana, making them illegal at the federal level. Some states have legalized CBD, so be sure to check state laws, especially when traveling. Also, keep in mind that the FDA has not approved nonprescription CBD products, and some products may be inaccurately labeled.

Jessica Timmons has been working as a freelance writer since 2007, covering everything from pregnancy and parenting to cannabis, chiropractic, stand-up paddling, fitness, martial arts, home decor, and much more. Her work has appeared in mindbodygreen, Pregnancy & Newborn, Modern Parents Messy Kids, and Coffee + Crumbs. See what she’s up to now at jessicatimmons.com.