Early Research Into Cannabis Oil for Autism Looks Promising

image of a woman sitting at a children's table with a young girl while they're playing with toys and talking

With more movements to legalize marijuana across the United States and other countries, there’s a benefit that not many people may consider: research. If there are more places that do not prohibit marijuana or regulate it as a criminal substance, there are more places that can start conducting research on the exact effects and potential benefits of cannabis. Its medical uses have been more widely researched and applied in recent years, but there is still a great amount to be discovered. One condition that has been found to interact well with medical marijuana is autism, and while the effects of cannabis oil for autism are still being studied, more and more people are testing out its effects.

What is Autism? image of two hands reaching out over a wood table to hold a heart with the autism design on puzzle pieces

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes "a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication," according to Autism Speaks. ASD can be influenced by genetics and the environment, and it  takes a different form in each individual. ASD can be diagnosed as young as 18 months, though it does not often manifest in physical appearances, and it often takes shape with notably higher or lower cognitive abilities. ASD affects about one in every 59 people.

While ASD is a lifelong disorder and cannot be cured at this time, there are a range of treatments available to help improve the day-to-day quality of life for those on the spectrum. Some may include intense behavioral interventions, pharmacological therapy, and speech, occupational, and physical therapy, according to the Autism Science Foundation. Slow teachings can help as a person with ASD gets older. Some medications, such as risperidone and aripriprazole, have been approved to regulate harmful or negative behaviors associated with ASD. They are antipsychotics with a relatively poor track record of efficacy and side effects.

In recent years, cannabis has been part of clinical trials for people with ASD, specifically testing the potential benefits of cannabis oil for autism.

Cannabis as a Treatment for ASD image of a glass container of cannabis oil sitting on a table with marijuana leaves behind and in front of it

Many believe that cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive compound found in marijuana, can help people with ASD. Research has been lead not in the United States, but in Israel, where medical cannabis testing has been occurring since around 1992, according to USA Today. The medical marijuana program in Israel is government sponsored, so they’ve had more flexibility in conducting research at lower costs and with greater ease than the United States.

recent study at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem found that cannabis can help children with epilepsy and ASD. This connection with epilepsy is important, as there is often a correlation between those with ASD and those who suffer from seizures. According to the study, "80% of the children's parents who participated in the study reported a decrease in problematic behavior." This, coupled with "mounting anecdotal reports of autistic children who benefited from cannabis," led to further testing on children with ASD to see if cannabis oil could potentially improve behavior. Success in those areas sparked a surge of research in the United States – or as much is possible given current state-by-state regulation of marijuana.

Keep in mind that using cannabis as a treatment for autism spectrum disorder, especially with children, does not automatically mean smoking a joint. Medical cannabis can be taken as oils in the form of sprays or drops. Vaping is possible and is easy for beginners. CBD gummies and edibles are also an option, though dosage and timing can be problematic. Also consider which strain will be most effective in treating ASD in each individual patient, remembering that each case is different and that it may take some time to find the most beneficial treatment.

Potential Benefits a red headed child with her back to the camera has her arms in the air and she's taking in the beauty of the nature around her

The research is all very new, but cannabis has some promising results in the treatment of symptoms of ASD. CBD has properties that are neuroprotective, anticonvulsant, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic, as well as elements that treat depression, dependence, and anxiety. According to BAS Research, it has the ability to reduce nausea and vomiting, suppress seizure activity, combat inflammatory disorders, fight psychosis disorders, fight neurodegenerative disorders, prevent or combat tumors and cancers, and help with mental health issues.

The researcher in Jerusalem did not make any definitive claims about the success of cannabis oil in people with ASD, but there were admittedly many cases where children showed "significant improvements," including decreased violent or angry fits, more communication, and improved overall behavior.

There are lots of success stories regarding cannabis oil for autism. One famous success story comes out of Georgia, where a young boy, age four, started using cannabis oil as a treatment for ASD and epilepsy; he saw immediate improvements. A Chicago Tribune story details the case of a mother who started making cookies with cannabis oil for her young son, who was wracked with violent outbursts from ASD, and she drastically improved the lives of the entire family. Also, there is a group called Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA) that campaigns #cannabis4autism, self-described as a "grassroots education group whose primary goal is to empower parents to advocate for their child with autism." Success stories fill the media every so often, but it’s also important to consider that negative implications may be hard to measure or may be less publicized.

Potential Adverse Effects image of an MRI scan of a brain from the side

One concern comes from a representative from the Autism Spectrum Center at Boston Children's Hospital, who suggests that there could be harm in the brain development of children who are given cannabis oil to treat ASD. She’s not alone in this worry, and while there is no concrete evidence to prove that people using marijuana to help with ASD are experiencing adverse effects from it, the lack of research problem remains. In general, marijuana consumption does seem to have long-term effects, including issues with learning, education, memory, and other cognitive developments. It also may be associated with poor levels of achievement and satisfaction, and it may negatively affect relationships. Depending on form of use, dosage, and frequency of use, it may lead to further adverse health effects or interact poorly with other medications and treatments.

It’s a risky treatment when there aren’t lots of conclusive studies to look into, so the risk should be weighed on a case-by-case basis. For some people with more severe ASD that inhibits daily life, it may be worth the risk of long-term health problems or limitations.

More Research Needs to Be Done 

As a whole, marijuana has great potential in the medical world, but it remains untapped due to research limitations. It may have applications for people with ASD; CBD oil has already helped some people with epilepsy and behavioral problems. Individuals may continue to find ways that medical marijuana can help those on the autism spectrum, but the jury is still out on any negative effects that may accompany the benefits.

The most important thing is to consult a health care professional before starting any  treatment involving CBD or cannabis. All cases of ASD are different, and many people are using CBD as a last resort after traditional treatments have not been sufficient, but who knows; cannabis oil may be a go-to treatment in the future for ASD and for other conditions.