The criteria for autism per the DSM-5 is as follows:
A. Deficits in social communication,
B. Repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities,
C. These symptoms being present in early childhood,
D. These symptoms causing impairment to everyday functioning,
E. These symptoms could not be better defined by an intellectual disability.
What is “Neurodiversity”?
Neurodiversity is the idea that variation in the human genome has created unique ways of observing the environment along with its stimuli and that this is beneficial, rather than detrimental, to the world. Basically differences in cognition (brain function) are normal and are not a disease or a problem in need of fixing. Although this concept is not yet universally accepted, it is consistently being supported by scientific research. Scientists are realizing that neurodiversity has been a consistent part of humanity’s cognitive landscape throughout time and is not something to be pathologized. Psychologists and neuroscientists alike are currently seeing that, while there may be some challenges, the benefits that come along with neurodiversity are indispensable to our society.
Neurodiversity as a teacher
Those with autism struggle with social skills because, neurologically, they are wired differently than the typical person. Those on the spectrum are usually very interested in patterns and this can lead to special abilities in math, science and the art. Throughout history it is suspected that ausitic individuals have used their unique perspective to bring on new paradigms, because to create new ideas and ways of viewing the world, it is required that individuals think outside of the conventional box. When problems are especially difficult to solve, the input of someone who sees things differently on a cognitive level is valuable today and most likely has been throughout evolution. Many speculate that this could be the purpose behind autism and claim many of the great thinkers of history to have had autistic. Based on displaying autistic characteristics, it is speculated that Nikola Tesla, Tim Burton, Sir Isaac Newton, Mozart, and Lewis Carrol, to name a few, were all on the spectrum. Mother Nature has her own intelligence, and many firmly trust that she creates neurodiversity for a reason.
It is important to state that a special gift in science, math, etc., isn’t required to better the world. Influencing communities on a local level impacts people on an individual level, which, in turn, creates a better society as a whole. If one really wants to change the world, having an impact in the community is necessary. The change happens within you and me. Having autistic individuals close can open the eyes of the many to new ideas, and ways of relating to others. Autistic individuals can help people step outside of the boxes they are putting themselves in, but only if they are willing.
Additionally, learning how to communicate more transparently would be great for the collective psyche. In a world where white lies are normal, fake smiles are rampant, and we are expected to understand the subtleties of passive aggression, it can be a good exercise to communicate authentically and to not need to change those who think differently.
Why fix autism? The current state.
The autistic community has been abused and misunderstood by both the psychological elite and the population at large. Autistics struggle in communicating their thoughts to others, and therefore it has been previously assumed that these individuals did not have thoughts. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. In recent years, technology has given those who couldn’t communicate a newfound voice. Thanks to these individuals, many are realizing that the conceptions around autism are completely amiss and that this population’s treatment has been inappropriate and, in fact, abusive.
Sadly, this misunderstanding is still present, and many autistic individuals are subjected to thousands of hours of therapy from a very young age (as young as 2). This “therapy” is rooted in strict behaviorism. B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist whose theories are at the root of the therapy, saw each person/animal as a “black box” (basically a blank slate), which learns likes and dislikes through reinforcements and punishments that occur in the environment exclusively (nothing is innate for Skinner). The black-box idea has been extremely useful to psychology in many ways, but it is not the full picture of a person — it seems to deny what makes an individual human, as it renounces the creative spark that is expressed through an individual’s interest/passions/etc.
Further, these therapy methods were developed without the input of autistic individuals. Therefore, many of the methods are not appropriate and should be adjusted to the current understanding of autism. While some behaviorism is extremely useful and valuable, focusing too heavily on it can create problems. For example, some therapists are made to “follow through” with demands on the child (even arbitrary demands), no matter how the child may protest. The therapist has been instructed to ensure the child does exactly what he or she has been asked to do. The logic is that “following through” guarantees that the child does not associate crying/protesting with a reward (such as not having to complete the demand). This might be cause for concern. No one is asking the child why he or she doesn’t want to complete the task; there is not an attempt to try to understand or hear the child. This teaches both that the child’s input does not have value and that compliance to authority is inevitable. Additionally, the child is learning this at an extremely impressionable age and there is a lack of consideration for the autistic population’s heightened risk to be abused physically, emotionally, and sexualy later in life. This is further complicated by the fact that these practices were developed out of a fundamental misunderstanding of autism. Those with autism are not always being “non-compliant”. Sometimes their hand won’t do what their mind tells it to do. The body ignores the mind’s request or the therapist’s request, yet the person is punished and treated as stupid due to something that individual cannot control.
Carl Rogers was a leader in the world of Humanistic psychology. The ideas of humanism came post-behaviorism, and these concepts have not yet come into the mainstream world of therapy for autistics. Yet they are hugely influential to every other form of therapy throughout the world of psychology (Odd?). Rogers believed that people are born with desires, likes, dislikes, passions, etc., and that these innate interests create the person’s unique “organismic experience”. The problem, Rogers claimed, is that as people grow up those who give them love do it on a conditional basis, i.e., “I love you when you’re quiet” or “I love you when you play with the truck in that way.” This then causes individuals to divert from their true self in order to attain love. The more “conditions of worth” placed on the child, the further the alienation from the self. Obviously, this is in direct contradiction to the behavioristic therapy of normalization and focus on appropriate play/etc.
Having diversity in cognition is important, there is a purpose for it in nature, and we need our autistic folks! Instead of trying to fix something that isn’t broken, it might be best to treat those with autism using the respect and the humanism given to everyone else that is in therapy.
To gain perspective, we could ask ourselves “Why those with autism are having such a hard time in our world?” Maybe this is part of what those on the spectrum are here to teach us. I would like to live in a world that’s a little less hectic, judgmental, and assuming; a world where there’s a little more empathy and a bit more honesty sounds good for my wellbeing too.
What is the REAL Problem for those with Autism?
The stress that comes along in navigating an unpredictable social world.
It is important to understand that autistic individuals have all the competence of a neurotypical person. Infact, those who are in the top percentiles of both science and math, are more likely to be on the autism spectrum than normal individuals! The trouble comes in when one with ASD is trying to understand/interpret/predict the behavior/emotions of those who are neurotypical.
It would be a very difficult world to live in if one couldn’t make assumptions about what was going on in the social world around him or her. And what has the greatest impact on aggressive/anxious behavior? Unpredictability. That is what one with autism has to face day in and day out throughout his or her life. It makes sense that those with autism might struggle with irritability or aggression. It’s textbook psychology.
What’s worse is not the behavior towards others, but the behavior towards the self. 40% of those with ASD have an anxiety disorder, simultaneously those with ASD are 9x more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
The Endocannabinoid System & Autism?
A considerable amount of studies have revealed, in both animal and human models, that:
● a dysregulation of the endocannabinoid system could be characteristic of ASD
● & supplementation with CBD might alleviate many symptoms of ASD
How? Those with autism seem to have reduced levels of anandamide (an endocannabinoid). Meanwhile, CBD increases anandamide levels by preventing FAAH (an enzyme of the body) from breaking it down. This is the exact mechanism by which CBD is able to alleviate stress for those with stage fright. The endocannabinoid system is the root of physiological functioning, especially when it comes to navigating stress in the social world.
The science: Aran, A., Eylon, M., Harel, M. et al. found in their 2019 study that children with autism have lower levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide. Dysregulation of the endocannabinoid system has also been shown in those with epilepsy (which 10-30% of those with autism suffer from). Aran and her colleges speculate that “our findings point to a theoretical mechanism by which CBD might compensate for ECS dysregulation in ASD.”
Another study by Servadio, M., Melancia, F., Manduca, A. et al looked at rats which displayed “early deficits in social communication and discrimination, compromised sociability and social play behavior, stereotypies and increased anxiety” they found that these rats had altered “CB1 cannabinoid receptors in different brain areas, associated with changes in anandamide metabolism from infancy to adulthood. Interestingly, enhancing anandamide signaling through inhibition of its degradation rescued the behavioral deficits displayed by VPA-exposed rats at infancy, adolescence and adulthood… This study therefore shows that abnormalities in anandamide activity may underlie the deleterious impact of environmental risk factors on ASD-relevant behaviors and that the endocannabinoid system may represent a therapeutic target for the core and associated symptoms displayed by autistic patients.”
CBD science is new (with many legal regulations) and, therefore, we do not make any concrete claims. More importantly, we do not want to change those with autism; our goal is to help individuals cope with the stress that may come along with it.
The stress caused by sensory overload or generally unpredictability might be better managed through CBD therapy. You see, the endocannabinoid system is centrally enmeshed in the manifestation of stress via the HPA axis pathway (the central stress response system). By way of endocannabinoid signalling in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hypothalamus, the CB receptors are able to alleviate over-stimulation of the HPA pathway during times of stress. But what if one doesn’t have the cannabinoids to stop the over-stimulation of this pathway?
Becoming chronically stressed in dealing with a world that is over stimulating (even for neurotypicals), endocannabinoids become depleted. The body, depleted of cannabinoids, cannot activate the CB receptors, cannot deal with stress as it should, and the individual is more likely to experience an even further heightened stress response. It’s a cyclical cycle.
CBD stops enzymes from degrading natural endocannabinoids. Whether a deficiency is caused by stress, an endocannabinoid system dysfunction, or a combination of both, phytocannabinoids from CBD fuel the endocannabinoid system and give it back the ability to regulate and manage emotions in dealing with the environment.
This one system is doing the entire job of stress management, and it needs help in the modern world. Actually, it even needed help before the modern world (CBD has been a medicine for this stuff since 2700 BC), the modern world just made it illegal, put a bunch of stigma around it, and now have to learn about it all over again!
Botanicam was created to bring CBD to those who need it. If you or a loved one needs CBD for a medical reason, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org; we will be so happy to get you into our discount program!
An Article By Evie Louise
Evie Louise is a recent psychology graduate from New York University. She is a certified in International Cannabinoid Clinical Therapy. Evie sees all forms of the cannabis sativa plant as the future of psychiatry, and hopes to use it in her therapy practice as a full spectrum approach to mental health and wellness.