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Medical Marijuana's Impact on My Autistic Brain

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Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Imagine you are having a conversation with a friend. Now a small group of 15 move close and everyone begins talking to you at the same time. Background music starts to play in the room. Suddenly, a thunderstorm hits and the lights start flickering on and off. A strobe light randomly flashes, and one of the windows opens unexpectedly. Cold wind competes with a space heater on the floor and waves of hot and cold overcome your body. Three children tug on your shirt and pant legs trying to get your attention. All of this is happening at the same time and does not stop, despite pleas to organize the chaos. Finally, sensory data gets processed as pain by the brain, and you physically hurt. Every sound hurts. Every light change causes sharp headaches. Touches send waves of pain through out your limbs. That crease in the sock stabs your toes. How do you react? How do you feel? What would you do if this was your life — all day every day? Could you function in school? Could you have a happy adult life?

This is my brain, all day and every day. In the 1970’s, autism wasn’t very known or understood and little help existed. I went to every psychologist my parents could find, and they were told they were on their own. Ultimately, my parents had a very angry and disconnected child on their hands. I ran away from school, refused to do homework, and was disruptive in my classes. I barely scraped by during my Kindergarten through high school days. My grades were so bad that when I sent my transcripts off for college applications, I’d add a sticky note that said, “Make sure you are sitting down with a good, stiff tea.” Directly after high school, I went to a junior college for a year before getting tired of school and dropping out. It was all too much. My GPA was 1.44 for that year.

After leaving college, I went to work and began my own family. After my pregnancies, my autoimmune diseases became severe and I was put on a low dose chemotherapy-like medicine. I didn’t realize I was MTHFR+ and had difficulty processing the medicine. While it worked for the autoimmune diseases, I spent more time sick than feeling functional. It was at this time I started using cannabis.

Some years went by and I decided to try college again. This time was remarkably different from my experiences before and I somehow could focus. My GPA went from that 1.44 to over 3.5 and I made the Dean’s List every semester.  Previously, I had failed or dropped out of college math three times. This time I could use small amounts of cannabis and truly concentrate on the problem. Even with the previous failings, my college math series through advanced math finished with a 97% average. Things weren’t noise anymore and I could process information. My dual major was education and neuroscience-based psychology. I won several academic awards for my studies in science, and even won “student of the year” for Education. My life was transformed, and I was admitted to a highly prestigious and rigorous college.

Cannabis use allowed me to go from a non-functioning adult to a productive member of society. This was 12 years ago, and now I run my own corporation, am actively contributing to the welfare of my local community, and am a published author. I still have constant noise in my head and signals are still sometimes translated as pain. The difference is in how I can process it. Pain translation is rare, and I can process more sensory data than most neurotypical adults. Can you imagine how different my life could have been if I had access to cannabis as a youth? I had no friends. None. I was highly intelligent, but my behaviors were out of control. Sensory overload dominated my childhood and put me at odds with nearly everyone I met. Looking at
my life now, I often get people who say they’d never imagine I have high functioning autism — yet I do. They’d never guess how isolated, angry, turbulent, and overwhelmed my childhood was.

Autism presents differently in everyone, so many may not have undesired traits they’d like to improve, but for those that do — cannabis can be an important tool. Here are some things to know before you get started.

1. Connect with others using cannabis for autism.

Whole Plant Access for Autism is the most comprehensive information I’ve found. Expect it to be overwhelming, but start reading. They’ve painstakingly compiled all the information I wish I’d known before starting my cannabis journey. Legitimately take the time to soak in all that information. As you read if you have any questions, they have a Facebook group and can answer targeted questions.

2. Cannabis is more than CBD and THC.

There are over 300 compounds in cannabis and all of them play a role in effect. This is called the entourage effect.  Doctors, dispensaries, and patients, tend to focus on THC or CBD and ignore everything else. They look for the easy “take 1:1” but don’t dig deeper until an adverse reaction. Know that you can tailor your therapy by studying the effects of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. This goes well beyond the basic indica and sativa labels. Those labels originally described plant biology. They were never meant to be used to describe effects. You will find a lot of mislabeled cannabis. Learning how to detect terpenes could improve your chance of success.

3. There is no easy answer.

It’s tempting to ask the void to tell you what to do. We are so overwhelmed with everyday life and would love for something to be simple — just for once. Cannabis does not work that way, and we discussed why in #2. You need to be willing to take the time and put the research in. Cannabis is incredibly complicated for so many reasons. Legalities vary by location, learning to target symptoms takes time, and all of this is an experiment. There is not a specific strain that will work for autism. There is not a specific dose or a specific ratio that will magically stop all meltdowns. Unfortunately, just like everything else we deal with, we have to do a lot of the legwork on our own. Give yourself the grace to do that research before you start.

Cannabis does have the potential to exacerbate undesired symptoms. When you learn how cannabis works, you have the best chance for success. Giving CBD to a minor is illegal in every state of the U.S. unless you are registered in the state medical marijuana program. Even CBD isolate and hemp CBD fall under this restriction.

4. You and/or your loved one will still be autistic. 

Autism isn’t miraculously going to disappear. The goal is always to manage undesired symptoms, so the autistic person experiences relief and joy. By many standards my high functioning autism could be considered mild. I have used cannabis for two decades now. I’m still very autistic. I absolutely enjoy many of the traits bestowed upon me by autism, but I am extremely happy for sensory overload relief. Easing just that one area has allowed my brain to process infinitely more information than it did before.

5.  This is not us just getting high to mask symptoms.

Multiple studies are showing that cannabis interacts on the same pathways that autism effects. The neuroprotective nature of cannabis has been known for decades and the U.S. government even owned a patent on it. There are strong indications that the endocannabinoid system is vital in the expression of autism. I can tell you that if I had access as a child, my life could have been very different. There could have been a lot less pain, a lot better impulse control, way better connection to reality, less rage, and way more processing of positive information. Don’t let the stereotypes keep you from trying this as a tool.

Image via contributor

Originally published: April 11, 2023
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