Parents of children diagnosed with autism recently sat in the ballroom of suburban Chicago hotel listening attentively as a renowned neurologist extolled the benefits of using cannabis to treat the disorder.

During his May 25 speech, Ronald Aung-Din, M.D. made clear that non-psychoactive Cannabidiol, or CBD, was a viable treatment for the disorder during his presentation at the AutismOne Conference at the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center in Lombard.

Autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders, affecting 1 in 68 children in the United States. Given that every autism diagnosis is unique, the disorder has been difficult to treat using traditional drugs, according to Aung-Din.

“The pharmaceutical industry has not met the needs of some of these patients, and as a traditional physician I was very much dependent on pharmaceuticals,” said Aung-Din, one of the few doctors in the country licensed to prescribe medical cannabis.

Ronald Aung-Din, M.D. | Ronald Aung-Din website

Traditional medications tend to target the symptoms of a condition, but CBD goes after the cause of those symptoms, he said. Pharmaceuticals generally stimulate or block receptors to provide their function, while cannabis-based treatments change or adjust receptors in the brain. 

This means CBD can be used to treat a range of disorders, including anxiety, depression and epilepsy — which affects about a third of people diagnosed with autism.

“[CBD] is most well known for its medical benefits,” Aung-Din said matter of factly.

The Sarasota-based neurologist also detailed the largely positive results of 60 peer-reviewed studies that looked at the effects of medical marijuana on conditions like Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s and fibromyalgia, among others.

Federal restrictions have stifled more extensive testing from taking place in the U.S., but anecdotal evidence has shown that CBD helps children with autism in ways other medications haven’t. An Israeli study that’s expected to wrap up by the end of the year seeks to determine whether that link is real.

Despite the lack of research, some parents have already turned to CBD to treat their children.

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Ivan Kozac flew from Rio De Janeiro to attend the five-day conference. His 7-year-old son, Ziggy, is autistic and has remained nonverbal throughout his young life. Kozac faulted healthcare professionals for being attached to “big pharma and the old school stuff,” adding that Ziggy had previously been prescribed an anti-psychotic medication that dulled his personality.

The family ultimately turned to CBD when Ziggy started having seizures. Aside from having trouble getting a prescription, their experience with the drug has been positive.

“The seizures are not gone but they reduced and his overall behavior is way better,” Kozac said. “So now I’m trying to understand a little bit more.”

Ziggy takes CBD orally twice a day, but his father is worried that the method may be affecting his digestive system. Kozac remains open to trying new ways to medicate his son with the drug, which there are no shortage of. A portion of Aung-Din’s treatment, dubbed Direct Effects Technology, calls for patients to apply CBD oil to the back of their necks.

Adriane Polynak, a conference vendor, used her booth to educate parents and other folks about her company’s line of CBD products.

Polynak started Kentucky-based Bluegrass Hemp Oil in 2014 after her 12-year-old son, Colten, went through a “pharmaceutical roulette” when he was diagnosed with epilepsy. Traditional treatments caused Colten to experience serious side effects, including rage, weight gain and near-organ failure. After starting CBD, those symptoms completely dissipated.

Colten Polynak | Bluegrass Hemp Oil website

“He’s doing fantastic,” Polynak said. “He’s pharma-free and seizure free now.”

Colten is now working at his grade level in school and he’s able to play the sports he always wanted to. Plus, he’s started smiling again, a development his adoring mother gushed about.

“He is completely back to normal, driving us crazy,” Polynak added jokingly.

The booth was also selling branded t-shirts to benefit the Kentuckiana Children’s Center in Louisville, a children’s hospital designed to help children with autism and other special needs. Many of the children with autism in the program use CBD products made by Polynak.

A mother whose son is involved in the program reported incredible improvements after he started using the drug, according to Polynak.

“After the mom started integrating our product in her son’s daily routine, she saw an increase in sleep, a decrease in constipation, an increase in focus, an increase in language and a decrease in meltdowns,” she said.