The Holistic Treatment Of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
The Resilience Medicine Approach
Holistic ASD Treatment Overview
Intro To Holistic Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Treatment
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition. Having ASD can have a huge impact on your daily life and functioning and it’s common to feel a sense of overwhelm.
There is no cure for ASD itself because ASD is not an illness. Instead, it is a difference in the way the brain works. However, people with ASD or neurodiversity often experience severe distress, secondary mental health conditions and challenges because of the difficulties these brain differences cause in everyday life. Many people are not diagnosed for many years after adulthood, and may have other diagnoses first like depression, before ASD is recognized due to what is known as ‘masking.’ Masking is where people with ASD are able to suppress their neurodiverse traits in public but this leads to issues like anxiety and chronic fatigue and depression for many neurodiverse people due to the toll it takes to mask every day.
A holistic approach if you have ASD can dramatically improve your quality of life, help you become more comfortable with yourself and help your mood. It can help reduce fatigue, anxiety, ‘asd burnout’ and other difficult symptoms so you feel more at ease in your mind and body and can dramatically improve your ability to function and thrive.
Chronic Illness & Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Often people with ASD also have other health issues too, and having ASD can make them even more challenging to manage. These can include things like depression, sleep issues, chronic fatigue, anxiety, problems with gut health or a pain condition. These health issues should be looked at and addressed together in the context of understanding neurodiversity too, which is normally not considered in standard medical care leading a lot more stress trying to manage these health conditions or multiple ineffective medications with high side effects being used to treat each symptom in isolation by different specialists without looking at the whole picture.
Many people with ASD experience a frustrating deterioration in their overall quality of life over time due to this disconnect in their care. Feeling the need to mask when interacting with healthcare professionals leads to worsening symptoms and distress, and often goes unrecognized.
A Holistic Treatment approach helps to break this cycle to improve your quality of life and daily functioning and find the best treatments that fit you.
The Integrative Medicine Understanding of What Causes ASD
ASD is thought to have both genetic and environmental factors and everyone’s experience can be slightly different. Genetic influences and certain alleles, environmental factors and immune factors all seem to play a role. Differences in Transcriptomes and in epigenetic dysregulation are also factors at play according to the most recent research (Chaste & Leboyer (2012) Autism risk factors: genes, environment, and gene-environment interactions, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 14:3, 281-292).
The Resilience Medicine Toolkit for ASD
The Resilience Medicine Holistic approach to managing ASD incorporates cannabinoid (cannabis-based) medicines, mindbody approaches, diet and microbiome, prescribed combinations of supplements, nutraceuticals & medications, and creating a resilience environment. These things when stacked together results in a synergistic effect, where the overall result is bigger than the the sum of each part
In the clinic, we also use functional medicine tests and approaches to further personalize treatment based on biomarkers, gut markers and genomics in some cases. These categories were chosen based on Dr Dani’s 15 years of experience using this holistic treatment framework with her patients.
It can be very overwhelming and confusing trying to navigate all of the pieces of a holistic treatment plan on your own. Having expert guidance and a system to measure your progress helps remove this confusion and overwhelm and makes sure you are on the best path, since everyone with ASD is unique.
This is a new way of thinking about medicine that goes beyond a ‘disease management’ system but aims to enhance quality of life, energy levels, mood and reduce the total brain and body stress burden to improve resilience over time to help you live more fully and with greater ease.
Medical Cannabis for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Medical cannabis is a legal medicine in the UK, now available on private prescription from a specialist doctor. Medical cannabis are whole plant medicines which contain over 100 active cannabinoid compounds, which are thought to work together to deliver the medicinal effects although the main cannabinoids used for dosage currently are CBD and THC.
The different strains or chemovars, can produce different therapeutic effects, such as helping reduce anxiety, improve mental distress and sleep, making it a highly personalized medicine. Unlike many other medications, medical cannabis is usually well-tolerated and can effectively treat secondary symptoms of ASD including anxiety, low moods, sense of overwhelm and behavioral issues in children and adolescents that have not responded to other treatments.
Although not a cure for ASD itself, Medical Cannabis can often help those who have failed other approaches to get a quick win in terms of mental distress and related symptom relief and starting off a positive neurological ‘cascade’ in the nervous system leading to improved ability to function in a world that is not necessarily neurodiverse friendly.
Most patients see a significant improvement within the first month of treatment across multiple symptom clusters including mood, fatigue, stress, sleep and global functioning.
Medical cannabis can often help with symptoms that have not responded to medications, including helping with coping and mental function in ASD based on clinical research evidence on the endocannabinoid system and ASD, the neuroinflammatory aspect in ASD and cannabinoids, large real world data sets, observational case series as well as patient experience and expert opinion (refs: Wilhiam de Camargo et al, Implications of the endocannabinoid system and the therapeutic action of cannabinoids in autism spectrum disorder: A literature review, Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior,Volume 221, 2022; Carbone et al. Healing autism spectrum disorder with cannabinoids: a neuroinflammatory story,Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews,Volume 121,2021; Fleury-Teixeira et al. Effects of CBD-Enriched Cannabis sativa Extract on Autism Spectrum Disorder Symptoms: An Observational Study of 18 Participants Undergoing Compassionate Use, Frontiers in Neurology, Volume 10, 2019.)
This can include high CBD extracts for comorbidities such as anxiety and THC containing extracts helping with behaviours and improved overall functioning. Medical cannabis can also help with the irritability and sleep disturbance many people with ASD experience.
Many adults with ASD find the THC dominant medications are most helpful in small doses and that in the past the CBD they tried made them feel worse. This is quite common in adults with ASD due to a difference in how the neurodiverse brain responds to different cannabinoids.
Because it is a highly personalized medicine, it is well suited for people with ASD which itself is a very broad and diverse group. It is also generally very well tolerated, more so than other medications used commonly to help people with ASD.
Medical Cannabis works on our endocannabinoid system (ECS) dysregulation, our HPA axis stress response system as well as our serotonin system and also has activity in the gut. All of these mechanisms may be relevant in ASD. Some recent studies have also identified differences in endocannabinoid levels as a possible biomarker for ASD.
Dr Gordon is the most experienced cannabinoid medicine physician in the UK, has trained the first UK psychiatrist physicians in the prescribing of medical cannabis for a variety of mental health indications including ASD. She has treated thousands of patients with medical cannabis first in Canada and in the past few years in the UK since it became legal.
Altered States and Psychedelics for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Altered state therapies including the use of virtual reality as well as serotonergic psychedelics are novel emerging therapies being explored and researched to help those with ASD.
Recent clinical and preclinical evidence points towards some of these compounds being able to help with the behavioral challenges, anxiety and depression experienced by many people with ASD, but further studies are needed. Currently these are not treatment options outside of a research study. (Gobbi et al, Front. Pharmacol, January 2022)
Mindbody Medicine for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Mindbody practices help to actually change the brain structure and function in multiple ways, turn down the volume on stress, anxiety and pain signals and help our brain’s become more resilient. Utilizing the bi-directional brain-body communication link can be very effective at reducing distress and many symptoms people wit ASD suffer from. One recent study for example (Stockall & Blackwell, 2022) showed that mindfulness training can reduce anxiety in adults with ASD. However, some techniques, such as CBT may need to be adapted for neurodiverse people to get the most out of them and sync with how they process information best. Neuromodulation with biofeedback devices, which can be at home and monitored remotely by a doctor is a new frontier in helping with mindbody regulation in ASD.
Diet and Microbiome for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Certain types of diets may influence and improve symptoms of ASD, due to the effects on factors such as the microbiome, affecting neurotransmitter levels and hormone pathways including insulin and stress hormone regulation and even mycotoxin exposure and elimination.
It’s important to tailor the diet based on things like symptom cluster profile, and sometimes gut and/or blood biomarkers and other factors which are assessed as part of the treatment plan.
Following a whole-foods gluten-free low casein diet low in added sugar and greatly limited processed foods as well as eliminating foods with artificial colorants and preservatives is a good place to begin. Some patients may also benefit from doing a full elimination and food reintroduction diet to see if certain foods are behavioral triggers.
In kids as well as adults with asd, some people find reducing exposure to food-based mycotoxins makes a difference in behavior.
If the diet is very restricted due to sensory processing issues, approaches such as food chaining and others tailored to each patient may help to slowly expand the diet in both kids and adults.
Medications for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Current medication treatments for ASD are limited to helping control behavioural issues, rather than addressing the underlying mechanisms. They have limited efficacy and often significant unwanted side effects. There is a significant amount of current research phase experimental therapeutics including drugs that target the endocannabinoid system. Medical cannabis has been found to be helpful by many patients with ASD in improving function and quality of life.
Conventional medications for mental health symptoms are often not well tolerated or effective in neurodiverse people but are sometimes tried. One medication that is sometimes helpful, although it doesn’t work for everyone, is slow release melatonin to help with sleep wake cycle disturbances in ASD.
Supplements for ASD
Supplements including nutraceuticals, botanical extracts, medicinal fungi, adaptogens and and minerals can all be helpful for different aspects of non-core symptoms, such as reducing anxiety, irritability and helping with sleep and cognitive function. Each person will likely have a slightly different ‘stack’ of supplements based on their specific case but could include:
- D-lactate free probiotic
- Magnesium Glycinate
- High EPA omega 3s
- EMPowerPlus micronutrient supplement
Resilience Environment for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Environmental factors play a significant role in shaping our well-being, with elements such as noise, light pollution, air quality, and exposure to chemicals in food having potential impacts on health.
For individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), these environmental influences can interact with genetic factors, making them more susceptible to external stressors. To create an ASD-friendly home environment, it is essential to consider strategies that promote a sense of calm and reduce anxiety.
Incorporating indoor plants into the living space has been demonstrated in multiple studies to decrease anxiety levels and improve mood. Selecting air-purifying plants, such as snake plants, spider plants, and ferns, can contribute to a cleaner indoor atmosphere and provide additional mental health benefits.
Establishing a designated calming space within the home can be highly beneficial for individuals with ASD. This area should be a quiet, comfortable corner where you can retreat when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Consider incorporating sensory-friendly elements, such as soft lighting, weighted blankets, and calming colours, to further enhance the calming effects of this designated area. Soothing lighting using smart bulbs may also decrease sensory overwhelm and help with sleep wake cycle disturbances.
Changing household cleaning products to reduce toxin exposure and considering other environmental exposures such as mould, pesticide loads and food additives may also play a role in the holistic management of asd.
Functional Testing for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
There is no standard blood test to diagnose ASD, it is a clinical diagnosis.
From stress tolerance and resilience testing to looking at the gut microbiome for biomarkers, circadian rhythm dysfunction, and factors like gene mutations which affect neurotransmitter levels, functional medicine testing can also play a role in the treatment of ASD.
Underlying medical issues or imbalances can often contribute to autistic behaviors and some of these things can be picked up on functional testing including gastrointestinal (GI) overgrowth of Candida and Clostridia, increased intestinal permeability, reduced detoxification pathway capacity and the development of food intolerances and/ or food allergies. These factors all affect central nervous system function.
ASD Patient Case Study
Patient: George, Aged 29.
Goal: To be able to feel more at ease and less anxious and overwhelmed at work when having to interact with colleagues and attend meetings.
George had a very high stress job in video gaming and was very good at his role, but because he had to work from the office half of the week, he became increasingly unable to function well due to the overwhelming nature of the office setting and started to have panic attacks. He had tried many medications but they had not been helpful. When he was in Canada on a work trip, he tried medical cannabis and found that it helped him and was keen to learn more.
The Plan: After an initial assessment, we started a low dose of medical cannabis to reduce overwhelm and anxiety and aid focus. We also optimized his diet and started simple at home relaxing brain biofeedback, since other mindbody approaches to reduce anxiety had not worked so far.
The Outcome: 2 months later, he had stopped getting panic attacks and was actually enjoying going to the office more. He was no longer worried about losing his job and felt more relaxed when he got home from work. His energy also improved and he no longer needed his benzodiazepine anxiety pills.
Measuring Quality of Life in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
One of the challenges of doing multiple things together to help manage ASD in the long term is how to know what is working and how to keep track of everything without becoming overwhelmed. This is where a system for measuring and tracking is so important.
We use a simple resilience and quality of life score metric that you can track in a simple app, including measurements of stress/anxiety, mood, energy levels and mental clarity. This helps you track the different aspects of how you are feeling over time as we add things to the treatment plan.
Validated rating scale assessments for associated symptoms of ASD may also be useful such as the anxiety scale for autism (ASA-A).
We track these metrics over time and put you in charge of your data with easy to read metrics so both you and your medical team can see what’s working and tweak the plan over time.
Using a specific holistic approach to managing ASD can dramatically improve quality of life so you can thrive & express your unique gifts and skills more fully.
Dr. Dani has helped thousands of patients with difficult to treat conditions over the past 15 years using this approach, first in North America where it is more developed and now in the UK.
To take the next step in your journey, book an initial consultation with our expert physicians.