Let’s talk about that recent CNN article about autism and cannabis.

It wasn’t very good.

The article starts off by explaining autism in terms that were already pretty stale in the 1990s. I’m not going to repeat all of them here; I’m tired of seeing a lot of this stuff spread around. Suffice it to say: the concepts and terms employed are rooted in an older generation of conceptualizing autism.

That is a straightforward description, by the way, not even criticism. An early red flag in the piece, as an example: One parent describes their feelings about autism this way: “It’s devastating…I’ve heard people compare it to like losing a child.”

It’s not surprising parents might have heard people say this. Autism Speaks put a huge amount of money, time and effort into pushing exactly that narrative…the trauma-centric, missing child narrative that has been haunting and stigmatizing autistic people for years.

Those ads were so impactful that—as you can see—people refer to them and use them as an operating framework to this day.

(Side note: as an autistic person, I can only evaluate Autism Speaks to be a historically damaging force in the world in terms of its corrosive impact on parental understandings of disability. They have made it so much more difficult for communities to understand and discuss autism and to value the lives of disabled people.)

It doesn’t help that the quote about autism being like “losing a child” is being shared with and passed along by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. This means—and please really think about this—that their most trusted medical advisor is sharing a quote from a parent who is quoting ‘others’ (not defined) who are repeating old commercials.

In my view, this framing, and Dr. Gupta’s participation in it, is a profound disservice to readers, particularly at a time when there is still so much widespread confusion about autism. Dr. Gupta would do well to read over this CNN article and gauge internally how he feels about the quality of its information. He is not the author of the piece, that is Natalie Angley. But he appears in it and I believe is responsible for allowing his medical degree to lend credence to the information he is sharing.

More red flags to consider:

Later in the article, a parent describes that they are giving their nine-year old nonspeaking autistic child CBD in order to elicit verbalized speech (CBD is a non-psychoactive derivative of cannabis). This parent adds that they are not trying other, more conventional types of medication due to concerns over “side effects.” Fair enough. Referring to their choice to try CBD, they say, “There may not be real side effects with it. Why not try it?”

Well, people should know that cannabis, including CBD, can have a variety of side effects, some positive, some negative. One common side-effect of CBD is intestinal discomfort, including diarrhea. Given the disproportionate number of autistics who deal with gastrointestinal issues, this is certainly a side effect worth knowing about. Other potential side effects: fatigue, irritability. It is easy to imagine situations where side effects from cannabis might be misperceived as autism traits and therefore ignored.

Crucial distinctions like this are not made in the CNN article, which points to the core failing of the piece: it contains no input from autistic individuals. Zero. And I am not just referring to interviews or feedback on the topic, though that alone is a notable absence. The experiences of nonspeaking autistic people—how they might be reacting to this medication, what their preferred communication method might be—none of that is ever referred to or considered.

As this article frames it, the sole metric for the well being of autistic people is whether or not they say words out loud. This is an inhumane metric to apply given what we know about autism and neurodevelopmental disability. It is an inhumane metric given that nonspeaking autistics have been requesting access to a wider range of communication methods for many years now, asking that they not be coerced into the ill-fitting milestones of other neurologies.

A hypothetical, to further illustrate the damage done by wrong metrics: what if an autistic person who might otherwise prefer to speak does not do so because they are experiencing continual, extreme sensory pain? Many autistics have written or spoken about shutdown states and its impact on their ability to communicate.

In this hypothetical, cannabis use might very well result in speech, but that is because it is functioning as a source of pain relief. Which is good, but in many cases, far more effort should be going into helping identify and eliminate sources of sensory pain, not just centering all efforts on prompting speech. Urgently needed quality of life improvements for autistics are too often deemphasized in favor of blunt, behavioral checklists.

I write this as someone who is autistic and who legally uses cannabis under the supervision of a state-appointed physician, though as a treatment for clinical depression. I support research into any potential ways that medicinal cannabis can be useful. I want to be clear that my issues here are with CNN and its disturbing lack of interest in the perspectives of autistic and disabled people.

Large news platforms have a long history now of spreading junk information about autism and doubling down on archaic, harmful stereotypes, all for the sake of dramatic, emotional headlines that drive traffic.

Again, don’t take my word for it, just read the headline of the article in question: “Medical marijuana and autism: ‘I’m getting my boy back,’ mom says’” The problem is that this parent’s child was never gone. Autistic people are human beings, fully present, no matter their communication profile.

And the suggestion that cannabis elicits speech in nonspeaking autistics is a wild, careless leap in logic to make at this point. Without considering sensory factors, without a more nuanced understand of autism beyond “do they talk or not,” we have nowhere near enough research and data to make claims of this nature.

That headline is textbook clickbait.

I am calling on news organizations to put more effort into educating the public about autism, to begin sharing the more accurate, current and humane understandings we have at our disposal.  Stop publishing articles that use autism as part of catchy headlines or controversies to be debated and fought over on social media.

CNN: please stop exploiting autism and disability topics for clicks.

Dr. Gupta: probably tell that one parent that CBD can have notable side effects, especially for individuals with autistic profiles.

At a time when there remains widespread confusion about autism and developmental disability, it is imperative that responsible platforms make a more serious effort to educate the public and to more regularly share valid, up-to-date information.

A cannabis plant, backlit by a low-angle sun.
A cannabis plant, backlit by low-angle sunlight.