Is Marijuana the World’s Most Effective Treatment for Autism?
It’s morning in Nahariya, a tiny Israeli town near the Lebanese border, and 4-year-old Benjamin is repeatedly smashing his head against the wall. He spins wildly in circles, screeching at full volume. As his mother tries frantically to calm him, he pulls down his pants and defecates on the floor.
When they leave their apartment, Benjamin wrestles free of her hand and nearly runs into oncoming traffic. Sharon attempts a trip to the supermarket but leaves before she finishes shopping because her son is screaming while he picks up items and throws them to the floor.
That was in October 2016, and typical of most days at the time. Sharon, a single mother who moved to Israel from the United States one year earlier, was alone and losing control. Benjamin was taking Ritalin, a drug usually associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which he did not have. He’d also tried the antipsychotic ziprasidone and a mix of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. None of them helped, and he often became more hyperactive as they wore off.
All that changed a year ago, when Benjamin started taking marijuana. In the little apartment he shares with his mother, mornings are now relaxed and orderly. His transformation may signal the arrival of a long-awaited and desperately needed healing for the many others just like him: children living with severe autism.
Autism spectrum disorder affects about 1 percent of children around the world, with disproportionately high rates in developed countries. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 children has been identified as having ASD, a wide-cast net of a diagnosis that encompasses several complex brain disorders that make communication and other interactions difficult. Children with milder “high-functioning” autism are often uninterested in making friends, feel uncomfortable when touched and have a hard time making eye contact or reading social cues. These individuals face challenges but can usually navigate building a life within their society.
But in cases of severe “low-functioning” autism like Benjamin’s, the symptoms are more pronounced and often violent. Children engage in repetitive and sometimes harmful behaviors, like rocking and head-banging, and are hypersensitive to sound and light, with exposure often triggering tantrum-like meltdowns. They can’t sleep. They have rages. Some of these children never learn to speak, or they reach their teen years uttering only a few words.
ASD has no cure, and most children’s symptoms are treated with medications approved for depression, anxiety or ADHD. As was the case with Benjamin, these drugs often cause their own set of obsessive behaviors and insomnia, along with weight gain. For many children with severe autism, the drugs help for just a few hours; once they wear off, symptoms like hyperactivity become even more extreme.
A Last Option
By October 2016, Sharon was desperate. She gave birth to Benjamin alone and chose to move to Israel to be part of a close-knit community. But his condition was isolating. She was lost, alone, exhausted, frustrated. More than all that, she was sad for her child.
One day, while filling Benjamin’s regular prescription for Ritalin, Sharon vented about the side effects to the pharmacist. He responded with a surprising suggestion. She should contact Dr. Adi Aran, he said, a pediatric neurologist in Jerusalem who had begun experimenting with medical cannabis as a treatment for children like Benjamin.
Sharon balked at first. Benjamin wasn’t even in first grade. And wasn’t marijuana a dangerous and illegal drug? But at the same time, he was living in a home filled with locks and padded furniture. She couldn’t go shopping or visit friends without worrying that her child would become violent. She had tried every option that conventional medicine had to offer. In other words, she had nothing to lose.
In Israel, cannabis use is legal in a small number of medical cases, such as epilepsy, severe chronic pain and certain forms of cancer. Aran, who directs the pediatric neurology unit at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek hospital, had been recommending cannabis for some of the epileptic children he treated. At the end of 2015, he began an informal study of medical cannabis for severe pediatric autism.
In online forums for parents of children with ASD, Sharon read about some new forms of cannabis that were created specifically for young children. She watched an Israeli documentary from that year that showed children with ASD transformed by medical marijuana. The more she learned, the more determined she became to enroll Benjamin in the Israeli study. She sent Aran an email begging him to consider treating him, and he invited the mother and son to Jerusalem.
It was a fraught trip. Sharon doesn’t own a car, and the five-hour journey, by bus and train, included several violent outbursts and meltdowns. At the hospital, Aran reviewed Benjamin’s medical history and observed his behavior. Seeing the severity of his symptoms and the long list of medications that had already been tried without success, the doctor agreed that he was a good candidate. Sharon was sent home with a prescription for an oil made from a specially calibrated strain of Israeli cannabis, along with paperwork to chart her son’s progress.
Autism and Epilepsy: The Overlap
Aran’s colleagues in the global pediatric community were still calling for caution in 2015. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which is staunchly opposed to legalization of marijuana, had just issued a policy statement opposing medical marijuana outside the regulatory process of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (The AAP still maintains that stance.)
But Aran was starting to see evidence in his favor. His first inkling that cannabis could work for autistic kids came from anecdotal reports of parents who had used the drug to treat children with epilepsy. The rationale behind the treatment, and the reason it worked, came down to the marijuana plant’s two primary chemicals: the psychoactive agent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the antipsychotic cannabidiol (CBD).
The brain is filled with cannabinoid receptors, which are named after the plant and function like special locks to which THC is the key. When THC binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, several sensations flood the body, what marijuana users call “the high.”
CBD works differently, and often with opposite effects. It doesn’t bind directly to cannabinoid receptors, it’s not psychoactive, and it doesn’t alter how the brain functions. Instead, CBD interacts with the brain indirectly. That process, called modulation, combats psychosis, depression, inflammation, anxiety and depression. While it’s THC that gets people stoned—and poses a potential danger to immature brains—it’s the plant’s CBD that relaxes them and counters anxiety, making it relevant to epilepsy and autism.
A healthy human brain runs on a balance of excitation and inhibition, a push and pull that regulates information as it flows through the chemical synapses in our head. With excitation, cells fire, transmitting information and signals. Inhibition keeps that flow of traffic in check. Like high-pressure water flowing through a narrow hose, these two systems work together to distribute information without overloading the system.
People with epilepsy suffer from reduced inhibition, which causes seizures. Over the past five years, a handful of successful studies on the use of cannabis, all employing specialized strains with little to no THC, have shown CBD is a legitimate treatment for certain forms of severe pediatric epilepsy. Doctors believe the drug works because CBD increases inhibition, thus helping to prevent the firing of seizure-triggering neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers. And because CBD does not cause a high, it’s believed that it presents little risk to the developing brain of a child when administered on its own.
Israel has been at the forefront of medical marijuana research since modern health care began considering its merits. Raphael Mechoulam, who studies medicinal chemistry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, first identified THC and CBD by studying 5 kilos of Lebanese hashish in the early 1960s. He was eager to unlock its chemical components in the same way that researchers had studied and mapped cocaine and heroin in the past, and in 1980 his research led to the very first trial on the use of CBD for epilepsy.
The results were promising, but the stigma of marijuana as a dangerous psychoactive drug was too strong to lead to immediate change. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it’s considered addictive and unsafe and lacks medical use.
Still, Mechoulam and other scientists continued to quietly research CBD and its effects. Partly influenced by their work, which showed marijuana to be a potent pain reliever, California legalized medical cannabis in 1996, with a number of other states following. But it took an 8-year-old girl to convince the medical community that weed is a legitimate treatment for sick children.
Charlotte Figi, who lives in Colorado, has life-threatening epilepsy. Since infancy, she suffered up to 300 grand mal seizures a week. By the age of 5, her heart had stopped several times, and she couldn’t walk or eat on her own. In 2013, her desperate parents convinced a Denver doctor to prescribe cannabis oil for their daughter. The compound, a special strain of cannabis with a 20-to-1 ratio of CBD to THC, saved her life.
Charlotte is now 11. Every day, she takes two doses of cannabis oil, with that same 20-to-1 ratio, in her food. Her seizures have nearly ceased. She is healthy and thriving. Her recovery is so remarkable that a special high-CBD and low-THC strain of medical cannabis produced in Colorado was named Charlotte’s Web.
Last year, a London-based pharmaceutical company brought Epidiolex, a CBD-based drug, to the FDA for approval. In a study released last month, that drug helped slash epileptic seizures by 41 percent, compared with 14 percent among patients taking a placebo. Epidiolex could be approved by the FDA as early as this summer; if that happens, it will be the first time the agency has opened the regulatory gate to a marijuana-derived drug.
When Charlotte’s case came to light in 2013, Aran was one of a handful of neurologists prescribing cannabis to young people with epilepsy. But nearly one-third of children with autism also suffer from epilepsy. As Aran watched his epileptic patients suffer fewer seizures, he noticed that for those who were also autistic, repetitive behaviors, communication difficulties and frustrations with social interactions also improved. Case studies in medical journals across the world noted the same overlap.
“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.”
Aran, 47, was well versed in Mechoulam’s research on CBD and epilepsy, but he began to wonder: Could CBD work in cases where the patient suffered only from autism?
A Trial Run
The parents of his autism patients read online message boards and Facebook posts telling stories of how CBD worked across the epilepsy-autism overlap, and they hammered Aran to try cannabis on their children.
He spent two years hesitating. “At first, I didn’t think it was worth exploring,” he says, sitting at his cluttered desk in his modest Jerusalem office. “Yes, this form of severe autism is a real problem, and the patients and families and the education system are all suffering. But in medicine we have to be cautious.”
It’s the medical community’s role, he says, to protect patients from being swayed into false treatments, especially those that could prove harmful. He was curious about trying CBD for his severely autistic patients, but he wasn’t certain it was the right move ethically.
In Israel, a small country with informal customs, it’s typical for a parent to call a doctor’s personal cellphone to beg for a prescription. Gradually, after talking to dozens of persistent parents, Aran changed his mind, he says. In December 2015, he started the world’s first open-label study on the use of cannabis for pediatric autism, prescribing the drug to a few of his most severely affected children, ranging in age from 5 to 20, and charting and monitoring the results. Benjamin joined this study several months later.
Geography worked in Aran’s favor. In America, despite the legalization of marijuana in a number of states, possession of the drug is still a federal crime. Wide-scale research and cultivation is impossible for American marijuana growers, and the lack of federal regulation means doctors who wish to prescribe marijuana to patients in states like California and Colorado have little control over the product the patient receives from a dispensary.
But in Israel, a nascent medical marijuana industry is thriving. The country’s combination of year-round sunshine and high-tech resources puts it in a unique position to grow and manufacture a number of cannabis-based drugs.
The nation’s Ministry of Health sees Israel becoming a global leader in medical marijuana and has taken dramatic steps to make that happen. In 2016, Yaakov Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi then serving as the nation’s minister of health, allowed the dispensing of cannabis, similar to what’s done with all other medications. He also joined a commission that opened the Israeli medical marijuana market to export, a move with the potential to inject billions into the country.
Israel is now one of three nations, alongside Canada and the Netherlands, to have a government-sponsored cannabis program. With the global medical marijuana market now surpassing the $30 billion mark, this tiny country of only 8 million people is poised to gain a major chunk of that profit.
The cannabis Aran prescribes for autism and epilepsy is a special strain originally produced for epilepsy patients, with the 20-to-1 ratio of CBD to THC that worked so powerfully for Charlotte Figi. So far, he has prescribed it only for his most severe patients: children who had never responded to traditional autism medications, were mostly nonverbal and quite violent, and whose parents were desperate. He has no interest, he says, in prescribing cannabis to children who suffer from other subtypes of autism, like Asperger’s syndrome, that potentially respond to therapy or traditional drugs. Cannabis, he says, is a last resort.
Aran ultimately enrolled 60 children between the ages of 5 and 21 in that first study. He tracked the results of each patient for six months through a series of parent questionnaires and in-office visits.
A paper that will be published later this year in the journal Pediatrics summarizes the results. Most parents said their children improved from the treatment. Nearly half saw a marked reduction in the core symptoms of autism, and nearly a third said their children either started speaking for the first time or were communicating nonverbally. One child said, “I love you, Mom”—for the first time in his life.
As for Benjamin, within two weeks of filling the prescription from Aran, Sharon says, he was calmer. He responded when she spoke to him. He could sit still and make eye contact. If she took him with her to visit friends, she could sit with the adults drinking tea while he played quietly in the other room. Within months, he was doing so well that his teachers recommended he leave his special-needs school for a standard classroom. “It’s like a miracle. I can leave the house and go out with him and not worry,” says Sharon. “I can breathe.”
The Need for Data
And yet, despite what parents like Sharon were documenting, Aran remained cautious. Parents have touted plenty of other drugs as miracle autism cures over the years—and all have consistently failed to pan out under testing. And the design of his first trial allowed for the possibility that parents would document the changes in their children that they expected to see, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias.
His next step—a larger, double-blind, placebo-controlled study—would address these concerns. Launched in 2017, the trial is the first of its kind in the world. Aran and his team enrolled 150 new patients for the seven-month study. The children receive cannabis oil for three months and a placebo for three months, with a four-week period in between for the first treatment to taper off and the second to start up. Of the cannabis oil the children receive, there are two possible options: an oil made from the whole cannabis plant, including extracts and impurities, or an oil that is 20 parts pure CBD and one part pure THC. The results are expected later this year.
Because the study is blinded, Aran doesn’t know which patients have received which of the three options. But he admits it’s hard not to think the study is on the verge of a breakthrough. He has treated thousands of autistic patients—patients who break furniture, tear out their hair and cannot control their bodily functions. The changes he has seen since he began prescribing cannabis have shocked him.
“I keep seeing the same thing,” he says. He doesn’t know which children are taking the placebo, but the people in their lives seem to. Every time the dose tapers off, he receives calls from parents and schools asking for the child to be put back on the drug. “We decrease the treatment, and suddenly we have a crisis.”
David, a burly, 6-foot-1-inch 20-year-old who spent most of his appointments with Aran wearing physical restraints, became gentle enough to hug his sister. He smiled and said her name out loud for the first time in his life. Eitan, a nonverbal 11-year-old who was obese, after years of medications for his tantrums caused compulsive eating, has lost the weight. Aran can’t be sure yet that these changes are related to CBD, and any data will require an extensive peer review before publication. Still, he says, “something is working.”
The Autism Market
Doctors and parents aren’t the only ones eager to have the study blindfolds removed. The major Israeli cannabis companies, locked in a race for dominion over a market estimated to reach $4 billion in the coming year, are also watching.
Three companies have dominated the fast-growing Israeli cannabis market, each scrambling for dominion. Tikun Olam became the first medical cannabis supplier in Israel when it launched in 2005. Breath of Life is now the world’s largest production, research and development facility for medical cannabis, with 1 million square feet of cultivation fields and 30,000 square feet of labs and greenhouse space. Better is Israel’s only 100 percent organic medical cannabis company. All three are running their own private studies to produce data that will help sell their drugs. (Aran is currently using cannabis from Breath of Life, which created a 20-to-1 strain called Topaz specifically for this study and provided it for free.)
These companies have their eyes on the study in part because it will resolve a debate surrounding what’s known as the entourage effect. That term, first introduced by Mechoulam, refers to the idea that the many compounds in cannabis—THC, CBD and others—work together. Take any part out, and the plant fails to have an effect. Whether that effect is real is unknown. Aran’s trial, which includes an isolated-compound oil and a whole-plant oil, will answer that question.
Breath of Life is hedging its bets, growing whole-plant cannabis and doing laboratory work that extracts pure CBD for pharmaceuticals. Its goal is to bring a cannabis product to the FDA that can be approved for American children with autism. Once the data resolve which oil, if any, works, the company can focus its resources on that version exclusively.
“If the whole plant proves to be statistically significant over the clean version, that means there is an entourage effect, and we understand where we as researchers are going,” says Tamir Gedo, CEO of Breath of Life. “But either way, we are going to take it to the FDA.”
Research in the United States
Since Aran began his research, physicians in the United States have begun to warm up to cannabis as a potential autism treatment as well.
Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, announced last year that he is running his own study on medical cannabis in pediatric autism—the first in the U.S. to explore cannabis for pediatric autism. “There’s a big unmet need,” he says.
But unlike in Aran’s study, Hollander’s patients are receiving a treatment that contains neither THC nor CBD. They will receive pure cannabidivarin, or CBDV, a cannabinoid derived from the cannabis plant that is very similar in chemical makeup to CBD. It also has a similar track record to CBD in terms of medical application. In studies among patients with epilepsy, CBDV has also been effective in reducing seizures.
The U.S. Department of Defense is funding Hollander’s study. After realizing that military families with autistic children struggle with relocation and placement in remote locations, the department began an active program on autism research. A cannabis grower based in London is providing the drug, administered in capsule form. The goal of his study is to see if CBDV alone can combat the core symptoms of autism.
Whatever the results, change is still a long way off. For American parents hoping to give cannabis to their severely autistic children, it could be several years before any autism drug, either from Israeli or American research, is readily available to them. In the United States, doctors in only three states—Georgia, Oregon and Pennsylvania—can legally prescribe cannabis to autistic children. A law on the books in Minnesota will grant access to doctors in July.
Hollander will start recruitment for his study in March 2018 but won’t have results for another three years. If they show a statistically significant difference between CBDV and the placebo in treating the symptoms of autism, he will likely run a Phase III study, a necessary step toward bringing the drug to market. At that rate, he says, it will be at least six years before the drug he is testing reaches the U.S. market.
But the global medical community is interconnected, and Aran’s study might put pressure on the FDA to speed up the process, or at least approve off-label applications for epilepsy CBD drugs like Epidiolex. Hollander believes if the data out of Jerusalem in late 2018 proves that transformations like Benjamin’s are not rare among patients with severe autism, and if the possible side effects are mild and manageable, some states might amend their medical marijuana laws to grant parents greater access.
In the meantime, Aran stresses the need to change the anti-marijuana stigma that still pervades American medicine and drug regulation. “Giving marijuana to children is unthinkable, but CBD is not marijuana,” he says. “It’s not a drug. It’s a medication.”
CBD & Autism: Does It Really Work?
CBD may be the perfect treatment option for people suffering from autism.
This is a disability that affects the social, emotional, and communication development of an individual, having significant effects on an individual’s ability to lead a normal life.
Many now believe that CBD could be the key to reducing the severity of these symptoms in the long run.
Autism makes up one of the biggest minorities in the world, with sufferers thought to make up 1% of the population. It is a neurodevelopmental condition that develops in the womb and often becomes apparent during infancy or early childhood.
Despite the number of sufferers, however, this condition has remained a medical mystery as far as treatments are concerned since it was discovered.
In the past, many researchers have tried and failed to treat the condition with traditional drug therapies, but a pioneering Israeli study may change this.
In this study, which involved treating autistic children with high-CBD cannabis oil for seven months, problematic behavior reduced by 80%, and communication also improved.
Understandably, many are hesitant to believe these claims after years of no treatment options, which is why we have put together evidence to determine whether CBD can be considered a viable treatment for autism.
What Is CBD?
Cannabidiol, often abbreviated to CBD, is one of the thousands of compounds produced by the cannabis species of plant.
These compounds are split into several different classes, with CBD belonging to the cannabinoid class.
Also involved in this class is THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid responsible for the ‘high’ people experience when consuming cannabis in its natural form.
This has led to extreme confusion about whether CBD does the same, but this isn’t the case.
In fact, CBD is completely non-psychoactive, meaning consumers will not receive a high when consuming this cannabinoid in its purest form.
This, alongside the fact that CBD is the second most prevalent active ingredient within the cannabis plant species, makes it perfect for medical use.
When used for this purpose, the CBD used is most often derived from hemp plants, which have higher volumes of CBD and lower volumes of THC than other cannabis plant species.
With such high counts of CBD available in a single plant, the extraction process is generally easier, and the result is more cost-effective for users.
In the US, using hemp also makes CBD more accessible as it is federally legal throughout the U.S as of the end of 2018.
What The Science Says About Using CBD To Manage Autism
When it comes to using CBD to manage autism, it’s understandable that many people are skeptical.
Despite the vast amount of testimonials, autism is a condition that has been targeted by pseudoscience with treatment options that hard children with autism, and it’s easy to believe CBD could do the same.
Even with testimonials from individuals and families of autism sufferers about how CBD has positively impacted their lives, it can be difficult to believe without scientific evidence to back it up.
The good news is that this evidence does exist, and it primarily relies on the body’s natural endocannabinoid system (ECS).
This system is extremely important, although many aren’t taught about it, as it’s responsible for regulating functions including motor control, pain, memory, mood variations, and immune functionality.
The main thing you need to know about this system is that there are two types of cannabinoid receptors, known as CB1 and CB2, which are responsible for producing and releasing cannabinoids around the body.
The CB1 receptors are known as peripheral receptors, which means they are primarily found in the brain and spinal cord. The CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are mostly found in the white blood cells and are responsible for maintaining the immune system.
Initially, it was thought that CBD attaches itself to these receptors to enhance the natural release of endocannabinoids, but this is no longer believed to be the case.
Further investigations have instead revealed that CBD works by triggering the body to use and produce more of its own natural cannabinoids.
Although our neurobiological understanding of autism is extremely limited, it’s believed that most of the symptoms associated with autism can be regulated by enhancing actions in the endocannabinoid system.
In particular, using CBD to trigger the body to use more chemicals is important, as it has been linked to a number of benefits that may help with autism symptoms.
One of these scientific benefits is that CBD can be used to trigger the endocannabinoid system to reduce neuroinflammation in people with autism.
Although we don’t know whether neuroinflammation is the result or the cause of autism, it has been detected in the post-mortem brain specimens of ASD patients in past scientific research.
Many scientists also believe inflammation in the gut could be partly responsible for some autism symptoms, but that the indirect activation of the receptors from CBD could help to reduce this.
CBD for Autism: What The Research Tells Us
While there is currently no cure for the core symptoms of autism in children or adults, many research studies have revealed that CBD could become a great way of targeting the symptoms.
While not abolishing them completely, some researchers have looked into specific symptoms and have had surprising results regarding the improvement with the administration of CBD.
One of the biggest things to face in children with autism is difficulty with regulating their emotions and dealing with sensory input.
This can lead to extremely challenging behavior, especially at the severe end of the spectrum, which many caregivers struggle to deal with.
It’s also distressing for the child themselves, which is why researchers have made it their mission to discover ways of treating it.
So far, the evidence of CBD being used as a viable treatment has been best supported by the Israeli study we mentioned at the start of this article.
Conducted by Dr. Aran and originally published in Neurology , their observational study found CBD improved challenging behavior problems by 80%.
This study took place over the course of 7 months, where 60 participants were administered with daily CBD supplements, suggesting it’s a result that could be maintained over time.
Although this is, as other research on the topic, a pioneering study that would need further evidence to completely back up their claims, it’s an extremely promising early result that goes some way to proving the benefits of CBD.
Another area in which researchers are keen to find a solution is the social situation deficit that many with autism seem to struggle with.
There hasn’t been much explanation as to why children with autism struggle with this aspect to such a degree, but one study has discovered that CBD may be the answer for reducing this.
In fact, this study stumbled upon this answer almost by accident, while investing the effects of CBD on Dravet’s Syndrome in 2017.
It was an animal-based study where the mice were administered with a genetic model of Dravet’s Syndrome but were also found to exhibit autistic-like social interaction deficits.
When administered in small doses, it was found that CBD greatly reduced the amount of autistic-like social interaction deficits exhibited by the mice subjects.
Although this on its own does not tell us for definite that CBD can be used to reduce these symptoms, other meaningful studies have reported similar results.
This includes the study focused on behavior above, where almost half of the patients exhibited an improvement in their ability to socialize and understand social situations.
Children with autism also commonly experience difficulties with sleep, which are regularly attributed to high anxiety and stress levels.
While most parents of children with the condition are led to believe this is something they’ll have to live with until their child outgrows this symptom or moves out, this isn’t the case.
In fact, research into CBD has found that it is an extremely effective way of dealing with serious sleep disorders.
In one study, it was found that 48 out of 57 patients experienced a reduction in sleep problems after just a month of using CBD.
In another larger study specifically targeting those with extreme sleep difficulties, more than 400 volunteers used a mobile app to record their quality of sleep.
It was found that, day after day, CBD significantly reduced insomnia symptoms , even more effectively than its cousin compound THC.
Although not considered to be autism itself, 1 in 3 children diagnosed with ASD is also diagnosed with epilepsy.
Of this number, 1 in 3 children will be diagnosed with a severe, drug-resistant form of epilepsy, like the Dravet Syndrome we mentioned earlier.
This can exacerbate symptoms of autism-like social interaction abilities and delay important milestones in an individual’s life.
In one study of 23 children struggling with this kind of epilepsy, it was found that 9 experienced a 50% reduction in seizures after three months of using CBD.
In addition to this, there was an overall median reduction of 32%, with 4 patients branded completely seizure-free.
By dealing with the comorbid neurological conditions, of which most children with autism will suffer at least one, you can often see improved results with the condition itself.
As we have seen, by using CBD for this purpose, research shows us that you will also be improving different aspects of the condition itself, such as behavioral and social aspects.
Despite these research studies providing us with promising results, however, none of them really tell us why CBD helps with autism.
Although they cannot provide all the answers, they have been able to identify a link between endocannabinoid system deficiencies and imbalances and autism itself.
This information was crucial for further developments in the field and has since allowed other professionals to delve deeper into this information to provide more in-depth answers.
In 2018, researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University took on this responsibility.
In the study they conducted , they found there was a significant difference in the levels of anandamide, a neurotransmitter produced by the endocannabinoid system, between autistic and non-autistic individuals.
Unsurprisingly, those with autism have far lower levels of this chemical than neurotypical individuals, which could explain some of the symptoms of the condition.
Sometimes referred to as the bliss molecule, having enough anandamide allows the body to accurately maintain memory, thought processes and learning abilities.
This could go some way to explaining why children with autism have difficulties with short term memory in particular and struggle to learn things like how to interact appropriately in social situations.
By giving CBD to those with autism, it would trigger the body to produce more anandamide alongside other cannabinoids.
As a result, these things would improve, going some way to explain why other studies have found CBD to improve social interactions and challenging behavior.
What People Say About Using CBD To Manage Autism
Although official research and scientific understanding of CBD and autism is in its beginning stages, there have been testimonials from people with autism, their families and healthcare providers about the benefits for some time.
These are largely positive, revealing how managing autism becomes a lot easier once CBD supplements had been introduced.
One such case was told by Dr. Giovanni Martinez, a clinical psychologist from Puerto Rico, who used CBD for a child with severe autism who couldn’t speak.
Speaking about the child, Kalel Santiago, he said, “He started using [CBD] three weeks ago. He was a full non-verbal patient. He only made sounds.”
This changed as soon as he started CBD, with the clinical psychologist going on to add, “I’m very impressed with the language he has acquired”.
This progression of language and communication skills have also enabled him to cut down on his previously challenging behavior, he reports.
He has also become a lot more responsive with his caregivers and close acquaintances, laughing every time he hears his name being called.
Another account comes from a parent of a seven-year-old child with autism, who turned to CBD in desperation after failing to control her son’s symptoms with traditional drug therapies.
In her forum post , she talks about wanting to give him the calm he desperately needed without the “crazy side effects of prescription meds”.
In just a few weeks, she reported several benefits, one of which was that he was reportedly falling straight to sleep where he had previously spent 30-45 minutes yelling and bashing his head against the wall.
She also said that he had gained more verbal communication skills from before CBD, at which point he could only speak a handful of words when prompted to do so.
The most remarkable thing in her opinion, however, was the fact that he seemed happier than he ever had been in the past.
It isn’t just children with autism who can benefit from CBD, however. The forum post mentioned above led to another response, from an adult who was diagnosed with severe autism as a child.
The woman in question didn’t speak until middle school and was provided with a whole host of antipsychotics that only made her symptoms worse. While she turned to therapies such as ABA, they provided limited and temporary results.
It wasn’t until 20 years later when the individual with autism turned to CBD for back pain that they realized it could positively impact their disability, too.
They said that taking this cannabinoid helped them to relax and gave them the support they needed to focus more.
It also brought her verbal communication skills further, to the point where she was able to communicate her medical concerns to her doctor, something that was previously impossible.
There’s also hope for those with autism who need support well into adulthood, as is the case for Dina Dedes, 19, and her parents.
Speaking to a news website, her parents explain how her severe autism often led to extremely violent episodes that would leave both parents with bruises and other injuries as a result.
Eventually, when these occasions became more serious in nature, her parents traveled from doctor to doctor until the fifth one agreed to write a CBD prescription for Dina.
In response to this prescription, Dina’s mother said, “I thought we would see a difference within maybe three to four weeks and I’m not exaggerating, we saw a difference within four hours… She just calmed down.”
This is a sentiment shared by the woman’s school, who called the day after and asked if there had been a medication change because her behavior had drastically improved. This was despite her parents not informing them of the CBD prescription.
Following this prescription approval, they now provide Dina with a dose of CBD in the morning and at night, which seems to have had significant impacts on her behavior.
Although things are not perfect and she still struggles with other symptoms of her autism, her parents admit that things are a lot easier and calmer since the introduction of CBD into their lives.
Safety Concerns About Using CBD To Treat Autism
One of the biggest safety concerns about using CBD to treat autism is that it is addictive, but this isn’t the case.
This has been backed up by a report from the World Health Organization , who states, “In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential… To date, there is no evidence of public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”
Despite this, limited research into the effects has left many medical professionals with questions surrounding its safety.
In an interview with news site Today, Dr. Scott Hadland, a Boston Medical Center Pediatrician, referenced young people in particular.
He said, “We don’t know what some of the downstream harms might be of exposing these young people to these medications [such as CBD] in the long term.”
There has been some evidence that there is a risk to children from taking CBD. At the FDA’s first public hearing into CBD in May 2019, a leading biosciences vice president said that CBD is potentially toxic to the liver.
A recent study on mice confirms this, with those provided with higher doses of CBD showing signs of liver damage within 24 hours.
Although there haven’t been studies into the potential liver damage on children, in particular, it’s reasonable to suggest from these studies that it could be a potential danger.
This is something people should be especially careful of with their children, as their livers are not developed and can, therefore, process fewer toxins before beginning to fail.
Without clear regulations stating how much a child should be given, it’s easy for parents without much knowledge to jump in with too much for maximum effects in a way that may backfire on their child in the future.
If you don’t know where to start, it’s generally recommended to start with doses of around 25mg twice a day.
You can then increase this dose by 25mg every 3-4 weeks until you find a dose that works for your child.
If you notice any untoward symptoms, you should stop treatment immediately and consult a doctor for further advice.
It’s for these reasons, and other unknown medical symptoms that pediatricians have said further clinical trials must be undertaken before CBD is considered a viable treatment for autism.
Dr. Scott Hadland supports this, saying “we have to put the brakes on and see the strengths that are tolerated and the long term effects of these drugs”.
Despite these warnings, however, many parents are continuing to experiment with CBD for their children with autism to positive outcomes.
One such individual is mom Alison Rogers, who described CBD as a breakthrough for her son, Hudson, in the above Today interview.
She says, “It’s gotten him closer to the quality of life most of us take for granted.”
Roger’s said that she had first tried prescription drugs, but these had worsened his aggressive symptoms, but his safety and that of those around him at risk.
She goes on to describe one of his particularly bad episodes before CBD, saying “he attacked one of his brothers and slammed his head against the floor”.
After trying CBD following a recommendation from a mom in Hudson’s class, she says things couldn’t be more different.
“He’s more relaxed,” She states, “And we see more attempts at communication. We get better eye contact”.
So far, she hasn’t seen any negative side effects and continues to go out of her way to get her son’s CBD, even with the heavy regulations in her state.
In support of Alison Roger’s is the World Health Organization who released a report where they state, “CBD is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile”.
In their opinion, reported adverse effects usually occur as a result of interactions between CBD and other medications taken by the patient.
This means that if you are considering giving your child with autism CBD while they are already on other kinds of medication, you should consult your doctor first to ensure it is safe to do so.
The FDA also warns that you should not use CBD products that have not been verified.
In their statement for the Today interview, they said, “we continue to be concerned at the number of drug claims being made about products not approved by the FDA that claim to contain CBD”.
To put it simply, in regards to whether CBD is safe for children, the answer is not completely safe, but the risks are minimal.
If you are going to use CBD for your child with autism, it’s worth making sure that you use small doses and gradually increase them over time so you can note any risks to their health.
You should also only ever use FDA approved products, and make sure you consult your doctor if your child is already on medication to ensure it’s safe beforehand.
How To Choose The Right CBD Product?
When choosing the CBD product for your child with autism, the first question you need to ask is whether you’re going to choose a full spectrum or isolate CBD.
Full-spectrum CBD, otherwise known as “whole-plant”, includes a variety of other beneficial cannabinoids as well as plant terpenes and flavonoids. These are not added artificially; instead, they are kept in throughout the extraction process from the original plant.
CBD isolate, on the other hand, removes all of these cannabis compounds so that you are only left with CBD.
For medicinal purposes, including treatment for autism, it’s generally recommended that you stick to full-spectrum CBD for maximum benefits.
This is supplied through a variety of different CBD products, including CBD edibles and tinctures, but the most common form is CBD oil.
The oil is a good option for children with autism as it is dropped under the tongue with a dropper and is absorbed within seconds.
You can also get it in many different flavors to appease your child’s sensory needs and avoid meltdowns or complete refusal to take CBD in the first place.
It’s important that you do your research before purchasing CBD, however, as there are many “snake oils” on the market that claim to have CBD in but don’t.
These are generally unregulated and may include something that you could potentially harm your child.
To avoid this, you should ask the manufacturer or supplier of the CBD you plan to purchase for third-party testing results or a certificate of authentication (CoA).
If they are unable to provide either or both of these products, then it’s a good idea to search for another brand that can provide your child with the safest options going forwards.
As aforementioned, there are many different products you can look into for your child, so if they don’t get along with the oil it’s worth investing in other products before giving up altogether.
CBD is a cannabinoid attached to lots of misconceptions thanks to the plant species it comes from, but it’s clear to see that it can be extremely useful for children with autism.
When used in a medicinal sense, this cannabinoid is derived from hemp cannabis plants, with the final product containing less than 0.3% THC to abide by federal laws.
This allows children with autism to receive the best possible outcome from the cannabinoid without unwanted psychoactive side effects, such as the ‘high’ commonly associated with cannabis.
These medical benefits are highly backed by the scientific understanding of how CBD can be used for autism.
Although we have a limited neurobiological understanding of autism, scientists agree that using CBD to indirectly activate the receptors can help the body better regulate itself, relieving autism symptoms.
To date, scientists have discovered two biological ways that these symptoms can be minimized; by reducing the neuroinflammation found in post mortems of people with autism, and reducing inflammation in the gut.
Despite limited biological understandings, however, there has been a lot of research which supports science’s stance that CBD is beneficial for autism patients.
One of the most promising outcomes to come from recent studies into the topic is the reduction of challenging behavior in children with autism who consume CBD supplements.
According to one pioneering Israeli study quoted throughout this article, this reduction could be seen in as much as 80% of all ASD patients.
Further research into the topic seems to suggest that CBD may also increase social interaction abilities, and reduce symptoms such as sleep issues, anxiety, and other comorbidities.
If research and scientific understanding of CBD and autism aren’t enough to convince you, anecdotal evidence also seems to support the idea of CBD being a good treatment option.
Everyone from clinical psychologists to caregivers and people with autism themselves are noting reported improvements in areas such as behavior, communication and social interactions from using CBD.
With this being said, it’s important to remember that CBD is not currently approved as a treatment for autism, and there are some potential side effects of using it.
This may include potential liver damage and unknown consequences of long term use for those who choose to give CBD to their children from a young age.
Despite these valid concerns, however, the World Health Organization doesn’t consider them serious enough to warn people against using CBD.
They do say that if you or your child with autism are taking other medications then you should consult your doctor, which you should also do if you start noticing any unwanted side effects.
If you’ve read the positives and negatives to CBD and autism and still want to give it a go, you will receive the best results by opting for a full-spectrum CBD product.
The best product option for autistic people tends to be oils from a sensory perspective as they can be bought in many flavors and dissolve quickly when taken orally.
If you or your child doesn’t get along with this, however, remember that other options you can try before giving up completely if you are committed to testing the benefits of CBD and autism for yourself.
Regardless of your final decision, we hope you have found this article helpful and can make better-educated decisions about CBD to treat autism going forwards.