In preliminary studies, CBD oil has been shown to improve a variety of physical and mental health conditions like chronic pain, anxiety, ADHD, gastrointestinal illness, insomnia, cancer, and more. And in an April 2018 study of 60 children published in Neurology, a group of Israeli researchers found that CBD oil reduced autism-induced behavioral, communication, and anxiety problems.
But despite how tempting CBD oil may be as an autism treatment, Silverman says it’s “not an intervention with an evidence base.” It’s also not an FDA-approved method for treating autism.
No clinical trial has analyzed the effects of treating CBD oil with autism, so doctors aren't sure about safety. It’s also unclear exactly how CBD is absorbed into the body.
CBD oil is made without large amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chemical that’s responsible for the psychedelic effects of marijuana – so it can’t technically get you “high.” It has become widely available in health food stores and medical marijuana dispensaries across the country – usually in liquid, cream, or gel capsule form.
Some parents may also wonder about the legal issues regarding CBD oil. Some states allow CBD oil as long as it's derived from hemp, but not from marijuana. Other states outlaw CBD altogether, and some permit it for certain uses. Research your own state's legislation for more details.
It’s also important to note that sleeplessness and aggression are particularly difficult symptoms for parents, who can quickly find themselves exhausted and overwhelmed. Aggression, in particular, is one of the most challenging behaviors common to autism—oftentimes, this is a reason a parent may place their child with autism in an institutional setting.
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.
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.
Arno Kroner, DAOM, LAc, is a board-certified acupuncturist, herbalist, and integrative medicine doctor practicing in Santa Monica, California.
CBD is not helpful for everyone who uses it, and, in rare cases, it can cause side effects such as sleepiness or nausea.
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.
How might cannabis help autistic people?
Epidiolex’s success has spurred many parents to try marijuana and cannabis extracts for seizures, behavioral issues and other autism-related traits in their children, but experts warn that these drugs remain largely untested for such purposes. Some studies on cannabinoids have shown promising results in animal models and in early-stage clinical trials, but this research does not yet support their widespread use.
Are some cannabis products safer or more effective than others?
Many people who self-administer cannabinoids for epilepsy or other conditions cultivate it at home. Others purchase it directly from companies rather than buying it at state-licensed dispensaries, and research has shown that these products are not created equal.
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.
The actual potency of CBD products varies widely from their advertised concentrations, according to a 2017 study in JAMA, and some products contain more than the legal limit of THC — potentially enough to cause intoxication, especially in children 12 . Less than one-third of the products tested contained within 10 percent of the advertised CBD concentration, and THC was detected in about 21 percent of samples.