Marijuana may be helpful for treating symptoms of autism. However, more research on the subject is needed.
Autism is a developmental disability often characterized by behavioral, social and communication issues.
Autism is part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a set of developmental disabilities that were previously diagnosed separately but are now grouped together. ASD also includes Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders.
There is growing interest in using cannabis to treat autism symptoms, fueled by an increasing amount of anecdotal evidence suggesting its potential.
Can Cannabis Treat Autism?
Scientific research on marijuana and autism is lacking. But interest within the medical community is growing, and some parents are using cannabis to treat their children’s autism.
Thalia Michelle first heard about cannabis as a treatment option for her son’s autism in 2014. “The anecdotal stories blew my mind,” she says.
Her son Lance now takes a CBD oil with less than 0.3 percent THC, and he has experienced notable results. His aggression has been reduced by 85 percent, and his tantrums — which used to last hours — now last a much more manageable 5 or 10 minutes.
As a result, the family is able to do and enjoy more together. “We’ve been to the movies over half a dozen times [this year],” Michelle says. “This seems like a small thing, but for us it’s huge. Lance is far more amiable and compliant.”
Lance’s experience is part of a rising number of reports about families finding success with cannabis for ASD.
As stories like this one spread, more parents are becoming curious about marijuana’s potential in treating pediatric behavioral and developmental disorders like ASD.
This interest is evidenced by the rise of organizations like Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA). Michelle co-founded MAMMA and currently serves as the advocacy and policy director. The organization now has 12 state chapters across the country.
“The need is overwhelming,” Michelle says. “The majority of people who contact us have children with severe aggression and/or self-injury. These are families who have tried everything. They’ve tried every pharmaceutical available and their children are getting worse.”
What Do Studies Say?
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence about marijuana’s benefits for autism, scientific research remains scarce. Nearly all of the research that does exist is pre-clinical, meaning it relies on animal models like rats and mice.
A recent study, published in June 2017, proposes that the endocannabinoid system (ES) may have a role in regulating neuroinflammation, which is an important element of ASD.
“We postulate that modulation of the ES in ASD could prove a valuable tool to prevent or delay the progression of disease,” the paper reads.
The endocannabinoid system is a biological system that is activated by marijuana. A number of studies have suggested that targeting this system could be beneficial for autism.
A 2013 study found that the endocannabinoid system’s CB2 receptor is a “potential therapeutic target for the pharmacological management of autism care.”
Another study out of Stanford University suggested that “alterations in endocannabinoid signaling may contribute to autism pathophysiology.” Research has also shown a relationship between fragile X syndrome (a risk factor for autism) and endocannabinoid system changes in mice.
“At this time, good evidence is almost entirely lacking for its application in pediatric developmental and behavioral conditions,” concludes a paper originally published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in 2015, cautioning against putting too much weight on animal-based research that has yet to be translated to humans.
Further Research on Cannabis and Autism
There is a growing push to fortify and advance research about cannabis and autism. The first clinical trial that studies the effects of medical marijuana on children with autism began in January 2017 in Israel.
A group of mothers in Israel is also helping to launch a global database of information on how patients with autism use cannabis.
Meanwhile, Realm of Caring (ROC), a Colorado-based nonprofit that engages in cannabis research, advocacy and education, is in the midst of its Observational Research Registry (ORR).
The ORR is an ongoing collection of data on people of all ages and with a variety of health conditions. It uses standardized processes and validated scientific measures to monitor the impact of treatments they are using.
Of the ORR participants with autism, around half use cannabis and half do not. ROC’s preliminary findings show that both cannabis users and non-users with autism continued to use the same number of prescription medications.
“What we take that to mean preliminarily — and it may change in the future — is that cannabis is not a replacement therapy,” says ROC Research Coordinator and Care Specialist John Matu. “Meaning you’re not going to go off of your prescription or over-the-counter medication, necessarily — you’d add this as an adjunct.”
However, Matu says they have seen a difference between users and non-users in every other category. Autistic participants who use cannabis have better scores for anxiety and depression, sleep habits, physical and psychological health, social relationships, and total quality of life.
Challenges of Using Marijuana to Treat Autism
When it comes to using cannabis as medicine, there is no such thing as a standard dose that will work for everyone. In discussing the possible downsides with families, Matu is sure to explain marijuana’s biphasic effect, aka its “Goldilocks” conundrum.
“Too hot, too cold, or just right,” he says. “If you give too much it can exacerbate symptoms, if you don’t give enough you won’t see results, and if you give the right amount for an individual you’ll see adequate therapy.”
This is called finding one’s subjective therapeutic window, and it can take time.
Many parents using cannabis for their children’s autism rely on high-CBD, low-THC strains and products, like Charlotte’s Web.
“That will be adequate for quite a few individuals across a wide range of disorders,” Matu says. “CBD has over 60 mechanisms of action so it’s quite a potent, powerful target.”
Another option is to slowly adjust the ratio of CBD to THC. “THC can help with extreme behavioral issues, but it’s not necessary for everybody,” he says.
Side Effects and Risks
Caution is advised for those with sub-diagnoses of autism that involve streptococcal infections and for autistic children with gastrointestinal and bacterial gut issues.
“CBD and other cannabinoids exhibit antibacterial properties and can actually kill off bad bacteria causing a Herxheimer reaction — a toxic die off — which can [temporarily] worsen symptoms in someone with autism,” Matu explains. “And if they have trouble communicating, this might worsen behavior.”
The impact of cannabis on developing brains is also something to consider when the patient is a child or teen. Research suggests that regular cannabis use during adolescence can have harmful effects, including mental health risks.
However, according to a research paper from Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, “these outcomes have not been rigorously studied among patients with developmental or behavioral concerns.”
“Given the current scarcity of data, cannabis cannot be safely recommended for the treatment of developmental or behavioral disorders at this time,” the study concludes. “At best, some might consider its use as a last-line therapy when all other conventional therapies have failed.”
Michelle, with MAMMA, lives in Texas, where the only legal option for her son Lance is to use CBD oil. “I have to wonder how much more he could benefit from doctor-supervised use of a whole-plant oil,” she says.
MAMMA provides a list on its website of which U.S. states have medical marijuana laws and, of those, which include autism as a qualifying condition.
“Many families are accessing oils illegally,” says Michelle. “This puts the family at tremendous risk … [but] who can blame them? When your child is hurting himself and others, who wouldn’t do everything possible to help their kid?”
While there is not a lot of scientific research about marijuana and autism, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence and success stories.
Some parents have found success using high-CBD marijuana products to treat their children’s autism. As a result, many are advocating for increased awareness and changes to the law.
Current research in animals shows that there is potential for marijuana to treat autism, and a clinical trial has begun in Israel.
The momentum behind the advocacy and interest in cannabis for autism is likely to lead to further research and awareness in the coming years.