Can Cannabis Help Treat Autism?

Two children with autism walking down a dirt road

Autism is shockingly common in the United States, and its wide range of social, communication and behavioral challenges affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and their families daily. 

I spoke with Rhonda Moeller, co-founder, and CEO of the organization Whole Plant Access for Autism (WPA4A), to learn more about how some people are using CBD and other cannabinoids to treat this condition.

According to a 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 59 U.S. children have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As the organization Autism Speaks explains, living with ASD can come with serious difficulties like chronic sleep problems, anxiety, bullying, and self-injurious behaviors such as head banging.

The Need for Alternative Treatments

For many of the families struggling with these and other challenges, conventional medicines and therapies just aren’t enough. Moeller’s now-9-year-old daughter was diagnosed with autism at age 3, and Moeller explains that the condition quickly became overwhelming. She says, “Like many children with autism, my daughter began to spit at, scream at, kick, slap, and push other children, therapists and teachers. When she was 3 years old, my daughter was kicked out of preschool on the first day.” She says, “I found another preschool that was willing to work with her and her team of therapists, but I also had to hire a personal aide (out of pocket) to attend the school with her as well, for her safety and for the safety of others. At about 5 years old, I was seeing such little progress in her therapies, that I began to realize I had to leave my career.”

Then Moeller heard about cannabis as a potential treatment for autism, and like a growing number of parents, she decided to give it a try. She says that the results were life-changing for her family. After she had figured out the best dose and ratio of cannabinoids to use, her daughter became a very different child. “She was calm, no longer aggressive, able to focus and speaking more clearly than she ever had before,” says Moeller, “I still recall seeing this evolution, and just crying happy tears, almost daily, for weeks. Everyone noticed the change, though they had no clue what we were doing. Teachers, aides, and family members saw what I saw. It was like a fog had lifted from her mind and my daughter was for the first time, actually mentally present with us.”

The Need for Research

Today, Moeller helps educate and support others interested in using cannabis to treat autism. If you’re one of those people, there’s a good chance you’ll need some education and support, since it can be hard to find clear and credible information about how to proceed. That’s because much of the evidence about how cannabinoids work on autism is anecdotal. 

Scientific research on cannabinoids and autism is still greatly lacking. The few human studies that have been conducted are positive. For example, one of the most widely cited is a recent study in Israel, where 53 children with ASD received cannabidiol (CBD) for a median duration of 66 days. Researchers report that the cannabidiol oil they used had a 30 percent concentration of CBD and a 1:20 ratio of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to CBD. They found that rage attacks, self-injury, and hyperactivity all improved in about 68 percent of the children treated, and sleep problems improved in about 71 percent. The researchers report that any adverse effects were generally mild. In another study in Chile, participants were given a cannabis extract that contained both CBD and THC, and researchers found that autism symptoms improved significantly more with this treatment than with conventional medicines.

There is more research on the way. For example, in 2018 the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego announced that it will conduct a study on the use of CBD for autistic children. The study will involve 30 children who have been diagnosed with moderate to severe autism.

Finding the Most Effective Treatment

However, while the small number of existing studies are encouraging, there are just not enough of them. Instead, most of the evidence on the effectiveness of cannabinoids as a treatment for autism is based on the experiences of those who have tried it. As the authors of a recent publication in Global Pediatric Health state, this makes it challenging for anyone who wants to try treating autism with cannabinoids. They note, “Studies are not only lacking to document the efficacy but also the proper dosing of CBD in [children]. Many parents may embark on administration of CBD and will be challenged on how to assess or monitor what is appropriate dosing.”

The authors add that the scientific evidence is so sparse that, “The guidance of a qualified professional may not be able to overcome this obstacle.” 

Another problem with assessing efficacy and proper dosage is that—as seems to be the case with many things related to the cannabis plant—there is no one-size-fits-all prescription on how to use it. Instead, results seem to vary depending on the individual. This means that people usually need to experiment with different combinations and doses of cannabinoids in order to find out what works best in their particular situation. 

Worth a Try for Many Parents

Despite all the unknowns, large numbers of people are choosing to try cannabinoids as a treatment for autism. Moeller advises using full spectrum products rather than isolated cannabinoids. She says that many people find that a combination of cannabinoids is most effective, however discovering that combination and the optimal dose can take some time. To start, she says, “If the individual is a minor and they have a doctor’s approval to use cannabis from dispensaries in their local area, we suggest using a CBD rich strain alongside a THC rich strain and titrating them both until the right ratio of cannabinoids is reached to manage autism symptoms.” She states that for some people, only one or two cannabinoids is most effective, while others need more. If you are uncomfortable with a full spectrum product or unable to obtain one, Moeller says that you might want to try CBD only, however, while the potential side effects of CBD are pretty minimal for most people, she cautions that it can impact individuals with autism differently. She warns that for some people, lower doses of CBD have increased agitation and/or aggression.

Cannabinoids are not effective or tolerable for everyone, but Moeller stresses that for her family, cannabis has brought hope. “I don’t know what the future holds for my daughter,” she says, “But for the first time since her diagnosis when we started using cannabis, the hope that she will be able to someday live a happy, independent life came back. . . . Without hope, this whole ‘autism mom’ gig was hard. Now, I don’t see autism anymore. I see possibilities.”

 

Written By: Andrea C. Nakaya

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