Cannabis to Reduce Self-Harm Behaviors in Autism Spectrum Disorder

29 Aug 2018 10:02 AM | C.

In a recent release, Dr. Matthew Roman documents his method for treating autism-related self-injury with medical marijuana. He recommends inhaling 2-4 breaths every 1-2 hours with a vape pen. Orally inhaling marijuana has many advantages for this specific therapeutic use. Not only does it have a quick onset time (about 10 minutes) and allow you to slowly increase the dose (wait 10 minutes between breaths and take more as necessary), but it also has a relatively short duration of action (1-3 hours) before it fades away. The method of drug delivery is very similar to an inhaler for asthma.

I have only recently begun my public journey into Cannabis advocacy. I had been so consumed with obtaining the right education in cannabinoid pharmacology that I totally overlooked how difficult it would be to then use that knowledge to help educate the public. I've been made more and more aware of what it means to speak out for Cannabis use as a medicine and stand up to what I believe is its best therapeutic use: as a mental health pharmaceutical. I was just starting to feel the fear creep in, "Oh no, maybe I shouldn't be blogging about marijuana and my mental health. People already think such horrible things about me being queer and having tattoos!" But then I read the end of Dr. Roman's post summarized above:</span>

"While my experience is only one anecdotal data point, it is one of few out there and thus it can be used comparatively. There is nothing out there related to medical marijuana as an abortive therapy for self-injury in patients of any age with ASD."

Whether you agree or disagree with the politics and stigmatization behind marijuana, what you cannot change is the fact that this is an option, right now, to try to stop someone's uncontrollable pain - not ten years from now, not twenty, today. As someone who has used self-harm extensively as a coping mechanism, I know that when you no longer need to, you feel an immediate surge in confidence and an increased trust in your own ability to become happy.

When inhaling marijuana, the chemicals in the smoke are absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream and then travel to your brain where they turn on the CB1 and CB2 receptors. These receptors, generally speaking, are in the business of identifying and stopping overstimulated brain cells. So if there's a brain cell that is firing too rapidly, the CB1 receptor is activated and sends a signal to the cell to stop firing as much. Though the exact molecular pathway cannot be traced yet, it's clear to me that it is through this effect, called "long-term depression" (don't be scared, "long-term" for cells is on the scale of milliseconds and seconds), that medical marijuana can have a beneficial abortive effect for self-harm. Overstimulation is an exponential experience. It ramps up and up and up and then once it passes an individual's threshold, every single additional sensory input is jarringly painful. Stopping this overstimulation by relaxing the brain cells parallels what I've experience.

There have been many other stories of friends and families across the world who are using medical marijuana to help treat ASD, and the scientific literature is slow to keep up. One reason for this is the lack of background literature documenting the endocannabinoid system and ASD; the endocannabinoid system is more recently discovered than the other "significant" neurotransmitter systems in the brain like opioids, serotonin, and dopamine. And you need background literature to get grant funding. And you need grant funding to do anything.

Until it catches up, we must continue moving forwards for now in the only way we can: anecdotally.

Self-harm is an incredibly powerful coping mechanism to eliminate, because it works so well for its intended purpose. Pain is a very basic sensation that all brains prioritize over other activity so self-inflicting pain is a conscious and controlled focussing of the brain when it feels chaotic and out of control, which is also why it can be used for so many different purposes. The problem is that it causes damage, and we should strive to find coping mechanisms that don't cause us or others harm. I believe that marijuana can be very helpful for this purpose, because it can decrease the extra activity in the brain that leads to chaos that can snowball into self-harm as a coping mechanism.

I didn't fully understand that I was using marijuana for this purpose when I was first exposed to it, but I did notice that I was able to completely stop some of my most harmful behaviors. As a recreational user, I was only aware that it was helping me. But now looking back, my introduction to Cannabis almost completely eliminated my most physically self-harmful behaviors. My baseline level of anxiety was vastly decreased which prevented me from reaching the critical threshold that led to self-injury.

This is huge as it allows you to navigate the world with confidence and stability. When it comes to reducing self-harmful behaviors, preventative and relatively non-invasive therapeutic techniques such as music, physical activity, or Cannabis can make all the difference in someone's overall lifestyle.

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