It is important to note, however, that the aforementioned studies are limited because they were observational studies conducted without a placebo control group for comparison. Additionally, results were based on parental reports, which may have been heavily influenced by expectations, thus undermining results.
There are other clinical trials currently underway that are worth following to see what they discover. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recently completed an observational study in collaboration with Zelda Therapeutics, an Australian biopharmaceutical company, to track children with autism who are independently using medical cannabis to address symptoms. Results have not been published yet. 30 Another ongoing phase 2, 12-week double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial study, funded by the US Department of Defense, is studying how behavior in children with autism might be affected by cannabidivarin, a nonpsychoactive phytocannabinoid, which is a safer alternative to CBD. 31
2. Pertwee RG. The diverse CB1 and CB2 receptor pharmacology of three plant cannabinoids: delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol and delta9-tetrahydrocannabivarin. Br J Pharmacol. 2008;153(2):199-215.
Cannabis: An Overview
24. Kuepper R, van Os J, Lieb R, et al. Continued cannabis use and risk of incidence and persistence of psychotic symptoms: 10 year follow-up cohort study. BMJ. 2011;342:d738.
“In 2014, The Ministry of Health began providing licenses for the treatment of children with epilepsy. After seeing the results of cannabis treatment on symptoms like anxiety, aggression, panic, tantrums and self-injurious behavior, in children with epilepsy, parents of severely autistic children turned to medical cannabis for relief.”
Arno Kroner, DAOM, LAc, is a board-certified acupuncturist, herbalist, and integrative medicine doctor practicing in Santa Monica, California.
CBD can be derived from hemp or cannabis (the marijuana plant) and is now legal in many states in the United States and in many countries around the world. It can be purchased without a prescription as an oil, tincture, pill, or chewable pill online and is also an ingredient in edibles ranging from coffee to pastries. It comes in many dosages and at many price points.
Lower doses are also more easily tolerated than a higher dose.
Currently, there is some evidence that CBD can help to alleviate specific symptoms and improve behavior in children and adults on the autism spectrum, but research into the safety and efficacy of CBD is in its earliest stages.
In addition (and perhaps as a result), they also saw significant improvements in social communication, sleep, and self-injury (a small percentage, however, worsened with treatment). A tremendous bonus is the fact that there were few side effects, and those that did appear (sleepiness and change in appetite) were mild.
Additional studies have provided similar results: CBD has proved to be helpful in a majority of cases in lessening emotional and behavioral issues and can even help to improve social communication skills. These preliminary findings, along with the low incidence of significant side effects, are very encouraging. Studies are ongoing in clinics and research centers around the world.
Both types of cannabinoid receptors are located in neurons in the brain and throughout the body. The brain contains more CB1 than CB2 receptors, and the activation of each receptor type affects a range of ion channels and proteins involved in cell signaling 3 . The ultimate effects of cannabinoid receptor activation depend on which body system they belong to. For instance, the activation of CB1 receptors in the brain can either increase or decrease neuron excitability, depending on which kind of neuron a cannabinoid binds to; activation of CB2 receptors in the digestive system can decrease inflammation 4,5 .
Over the past decade, autistic people and their families have increasingly experimented with medical marijuana and products derived from it. Many hope these compounds will alleviate a range of autism-related traits and problems. But scientists are still in the early stages of rigorous research into marijuana’s safety and effectiveness, which means that people who pursue it as treatment must rely mostly on anecdotal information from friends and message boards for guidance.
Is medical marijuana legal?
Yes and no. Federal law in the United States classifies marijuana and its derivatives as ‘Schedule 1’ drugs, meaning that they have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule 1 drugs are illegal, and research on them requires labs to follow strict security protocols and adhere to regular facility inspections.
Many studies have shown that cannabis treatment carries only minor side effects such as sedation or restlessness, but these studies have not looked at long-term side effects. Researchers still don’t have a solid grasp on how the active ingredients in marijuana actually affect the brain, nor do they know how these compounds might impact a child or teenager’s developing brain or interact with other medications.
What is medical marijuana?
Medical marijuana generally refers to any product derived from cannabis plants — including dried flowers, resins and oils — that has been recommended by a doctor. It may be consumed directly or infused into an array of foods, lozenges and candies. These products have become popular among autistic people and their families for treating a broad swath of conditions, including insomnia, epilepsy and chronic pain.
Research has also demonstrated that CBD alleviates seizures in children with CDKL5 deficiency disorder, an autism-linked condition that is characterized by seizures and developmental delay. CBD also lessens seizures and improves learning and sociability in a mouse model of CDKL5 deficiency disorder.
Complicating the picture, CBD alone may not be sufficient for cannabis’ therapeutic effects. A 20-to-1 ratio of CBD to THC relieves aggressive outbursts in autistic children, a 2018 study suggests 8 . This same ratio of compounds significantly improved quality of life for some children and teenagers with autism in a 2019 study 9 . Specifically, researchers observed significantly fewer seizures, tics, depression, restlessness and outbursts. Most participants reported improvements, and about 25 percent of participants experienced side effects such as restlessness.