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Can Cannabis Treat Autism?

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Jan 29, 2019   
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Children with autism living in Colorado could soon be using marijuana as part of their treatment, after a bill that would add autism as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis passed committee approval in the Colorado General Assembly

If the bill passes its next stage of scrutiny by the House floor, Colorado will join the growing number of states that support treating children with autism with cannabis oils and medicines. 

The bill already has huge support from cannabis advocacy groups and parents of children with autism, but opponents still warn about the lack of relevant research.

While it’s true that there have been precious few studies into how cannabis affects children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the little that has been published has been commendatory.

Which begs the question, can cannabis actually treat autism?

Cannabis and autism: a last option?

It’s been estimated that around 0.8 percent of children are diagnosed with severe or moderate ASD. So, it’s fair to assume that 0.8 percent of parents and guardians have a few of the distressing anecdotes that often come with caring for a child with a severe disorder. 

For many, these upsetting tales of self-harm, manic fits, and malnutrition were thought to be an unfortunate but compulsory part of parenting. But as cannabis legalization has swept the nation, some desperate parents have taken to adding the drug, and its famed pacifying properties, into their child’s daily routine. 

And for many, the benefits have been remarkable. 

Children that once suffered from extreme rages and speech difficulties reportedly become calm and talkative. In one reported case, a mute child with autism said his first words after just a few sprays of hemp oil to the mouth.  

Whether supported by evidence or not, these miraculous anecdotes have spread throughout autism parenting circles and helped fuel the latest cannabis legislation. 

At the hearing in Colorado, one testifying mother said that she didn’t care about a lack of medical evidence and that “as a mom, I want my child to stop beating his head against a wall.” 

For many distressed parents, one glowing anecdote is all they need to try a new medicine. For others, hard evidence is a must. 

Fortunately, thanks to pioneering studies in Israel and the USA, that evidence base is growing. 

From anecdotes to academia 

Following successful research into cannabis’ efficacy in treating epilepsy, an increasing number of institutions are now looking into the plant’s ability to treat the symptoms of autism. 

In the past year alone, the University of California, San Diego, the Montefiore Medical Center, New York, and Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Israel, have all announced new clinical trials investigating the effects of cannabis compounds on children with autism.   

The main compound of interest is CBD. Famed and marketed for its therapeutic effects worldwide, researchers are interested in whether the cannabinoid can safely alter the children’s neural activity and alleviate the more distressing symptoms of ASD, such as self-harm, hyperactivity, and communication disorders. 

While some of these trials have yet to be published, others are causing a stir.

One Israeli study reported an improvement in 61 percent of its patients. Its lead author, Dr. Adi Aran, has been a proponent of using cannabis to treat childhood neurological disorders for nearly a decade. Back in 2013, he was one of a handful of neurologists in the world that was prescribing the drug to children with epilepsy. Approximately one third of children with autism also suffer from epileptic seizures, and it was after observing some of these children suffer fewer fits that Aran pondered whether CBD could treat autism alone. 

“We [in the medical community] saw children with epilepsy and autism really improve, not just in their epilepsy but also in their behavior,” says Aran. “Sometimes, it was only the autism symptoms that improved.”

More recently, a larger Israeli study reported an improvement in 80.1 percent of patients following a daily high CBD treatment over 6 months. Published in Nature, the study also claims that out of the 188 children involved, 34 percent reduced their other medications and 24 of the 27 patients with epilepsy saw a reduction or disappearance of symptoms.  

“Autism is a leading condition of concern worldwide, so this study couldn't have come at a better time,” says Dr. Annabelle Manalo, PhD, Science Director of Tikun Olam, the study’s research institution. 

“The data shows that autism patients with can improve their overall quality of life utilizing a high CBD strain, and most importantly, that young users can safely and effectively benefit from medical cannabis. With this study, cannabis is shown to be an effective choice for parents looking for the safest and most neuroprotective treatment.”

But while both studies champion the benefits of CBD treatments for children with autism, neither can adequately state the reasons why. Previous animal studies have indicated that individuals with autism may have dysregulated endocannabinoid systems, which could be stabilized by an influx of cannabinoids. Other ideas include the effects of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that has been shown to facilitate social interactions. In some studies, CBD was found to enhance oxytocin release during such social activities. 

Whatever the method of action, CBD still can’t have a positive effect on an individual without any risk at all. And although low, the risks associated with CBD treatment may still put off some parents of children with autism.

In the Tikun Olam study, 6.6 percent of patients reported restlessness, and 3.2 percent reported sleepiness and psychoactive effects. And away from the new autistic studies, research into CBD’s effect on children with epilepsy has not been without its side effects either. In one study, 11.1 percent of children showed symptoms of withdrawal, and treatment was even discontinued for 8.9 percent of participants due to increased adverse events like diarrhea.

So, is cannabis an autism treatment?

Right now, with only a choice few published studies to go off, it’s impossible to say whether cannabis is a fully beneficial and safe medicine to treat children with severe autism. While these studies have demonstrated remarkable outcomes and given credence to the effusive rumors discussed between parents of children with autism, they are still too few to merit the approval of higher medical and drug bodies, such as the FDA. 

But change could be on the horizon. The studies at the University of California, San Diego, and the Montefiore Medical Center, New York, are still ongoing, and if the results are anything like those from the Israeli institutions, CBD treatments could one day become verifiable medical methods to treat people with autism.  

Until then, for parents living in Colorado and states that have already approved cannabis treatments for autistic patients, the choice of whether to give their child CBD is still a personal one, weighed out by the known anecdotes and the as yet unknown science.

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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