What the Latest Studies Tell Us About Autism and Cannabis
Can this offer some new hope for treatment?
Around 1% of the global population having autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and this number is gradually increasing since doctors are becoming more adept at diagnosing it.
It can be painful and challenging to have a loved one struggling with symptoms of autism. In extreme cases, this can include self-harming, aggression, and severe anxiety. Despite all the advances in medicine, we still don't have a cure for autism spectrum disorders, though the treatments available are mostly focused on symptom management so that these don't disrupt the daily lives of those with this condition. Since it affects everyone differently, the symptoms vary greatly as well, which is why tailored treatment plans are necessary.
Currently, psychotherapy and prescription medication are the two main types of treatments being used for individuals with autism. Many types of psychotherapy are used depending on the symptoms; these may include one or some: physical therapy, occupational therapy, assistive technology, speech therapy, or applied behavioral analysis. For medication, the FDA has only approved two: Risperdal, and Abilify, which are antipsychotic medications designed to reduce aggression and irritability.
Treating and managing autism can be extremely difficult, but thankfully, cannabis has been shown to be beneficial in children as well as adults with this condition.
What The Studies Say
A recent review led by Mariana Babayeva, a Touro College of Pharmacy in New York professor, revealed that there is a growing body of clinical studies that have shown promising results using cannabis to treat autism spectrum disorder.
"Due to its vital role in regulating emotion and social behaviors, the endocannabinoid system represents a potential target for the development of a novel autism therapy," reads the study. The authors also added "several studies have suggested that dysfunctions in the components of the endocannabinoid system may contribute to the behavioral deficits and neuroinflammation observed in autism."
Within the medical community, it's also a widely accepted hypothesis that since the receptors of the endocannabinoid system can be found in the central nervous system, this explains the link between cannabinoids and improvements in autism symptoms.
In 2020, researchers from Boston's Tufts University revealed that when they worked with kids as well as young adults who had ASD but medicated with hemp-based or cannabis products, 60% among those with aggression caused by ASD reported that they noticed improvements after treatment. Meanwhile, 91% of those who had both ASD and epilepsy saw improvements in seizures.
Then in 2021, a clinical review of existing literature on cannabis for autism concluded that, "Cannabis products have been demonstrated to reduce the number and/or intensity of different symptoms, including hyperacidity, attacks of self-mutilation and anger, sleep problems, anxiety, restlessness, psychomotor agitation, irritability, aggressiveness perseverance, and depression. Moreover, they are associated with an improvement in cognition, sensory sensitivity, attention, social interaction, and language." The study's authors then concluded that "Cannabis and cannabinoids may have promising effects in the treatment of symptoms related to ASD, and can be used as a therapeutic alternative in the relief of those symptoms."
In the medical community, it has become clear that while the research on cannabis for autism is still in its early stages, it has been nonetheless controversial. That hasn't stopped families from asking doctors and seeking professional medical advice on the use of cannabis for autism symptoms because there are significant cases of anecdotal evidence that it can be helpful for many of its symptoms especially when it comes to calming down aggression and reducing seizures. Cannabidiol (CBD) has especially been noted as helpful because it's non psychoactive, and has a long track record in treating seizures safely, even for children.
In fact, many parents feel so strongly about the use of medical marijuana for treating autism symptoms. A parent advocacy organization called the Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA) has chapters in several states; in their website, one can find numerous testimonials from families who say that cannabis has helped their children. What is sad is that many of these families are medical refugees who had to relocate states just so that their kids could benefit from states with medical marijuana laws where it can be used for seizures and other symptoms. There have been families that have also sent in their testimonials anonymously, saying that they have used cannabis illegally because we still don't have the legislations in place enabling autistic people to use cannabis.
There are currently 14 states that list autism as either a qualifying condition or a debilitating condition. But that isn't enough: no matter where you live, you must be able to have access the medicine that can help make a difference in your life – even if you choose for it to be cannabis. Even if you choose to medicate your child with cannabis.
There are more studies ongoing to help shed light on how the body and endocannabinoid system in autistic people respond to cannabinoids. While the exact mechanisms are still much of a mystery, we can at least say that cannabinoid compounds work for autism. However, the efficacy, type of cannabis product, and dosage taken all play a role too. There is some research that says THC taken with CBD is best while others say CBD alone is best.
While cannabis can help, parents who want to give their children cannabis for medicine should keep in mind that it should not be seen as a cure-all. At best, cannabis probably works more effectively with other autism therapies. Speak to your doctor or one in a state that has legalized the use of cannabis for autism to find the best route for you or your loved one.