Cannabis Could Be the Wonder Drug Families with Autistic Child Desperately Need

Stephen Andrews
21 Sep 2021

Cannabis works miracles for an array of health conditions. But can it also help for autism and its many manifestations? While more medical research is needed, some observational studies, as well as reports from families who've treated an affected member with cannabis, suggest the plant has the potential to become a go-to treatment.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that impairs how the child interacts, communicates, or behaves. In the most severe forms of autism, where the child becomes the subject of self-aggression, the self-inflicted violence can go on for hours. Behaviors include hitting and causing pain to self. It's one of the most disturbing situations a parent can bear witness to. 

Doctors use existing medicines to target grim symptoms such as anxiety, mood swings, and aggression. But prescription drugs don't always work or are very slow to work. Their use is limiting and can cause several side effects. 

Families who've treated their autistic child with cannabis say it has helped their offspring as nothing else has. Vaporizing cannabis can instantly work when administered to a child raging for hours, enabling the child to calm down and find relief. 

Parents are sometimes illegally treating their boy or girl with high THC solutions. That is, in states where medical cannabis, and subsequently its application for severely autistic patients, remains illegal. 

Treatment principles that include THC are the subject of controversies; however, research is gradually mounting that cannabidiol (CBD), the non-intoxicating chemical of cannabis, might be an essential ingredient. CBD can calm down aggression and can stop seizures, among other benefits.

THC and CBD are the two cannabinoids with the most significant clinical importance. THC is commonly prescribed for pain, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite in medical practice. Widely known for giving 'the good feel' euphoria, THC-rich flowers are favored among recreational cannabis users. Lacking the mind-altering and high-inducing effects of THC, there's less stigma about the use of CBD. 

Autism is categorized as a spectrum disorder as it can have various manifestations where the symptom type and its gravity can differ. Although a person can develop autism at some point later in their life, in most cases, autism symptoms usually show in the first years after birth. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016, about 1 in 54 children were identified with a disorder that falls in the autism spectrum (ASD). A decade earlier, in 2006, the prevalence of ASD was 1 in 110. Boys are four times more likely to suffer from ASD than girls. Up to 25% of individuals with autism are also diagnosed with epilepsy throughout the course of life. Currently, there is no treatment shown to cure ASD. 

With numbers pointing out autism is becoming more common, there's a greater need for efficacy treatments. Early treatment might result in advantageous alterations in the brain of an infant diagnosed with autism symptoms. However, the brain is still forming and developing at this early stage, and there are risks to test THC-based drugs. By law, minors are usually not allowed cannabis consumption until the age of 18 or 21.

Families in need still reach out for cannabis as a treatment for ASD, even though actual medical research has not identified an entirely safe cannabis formula as a remedy. 

Some studies have highlighted the imbalances in the endocannabinoid system among autistic children. For instance, 2018 research from Stanford University found that anandamide concentration was significantly lower in children with ASD than controls. Anandamide is a fatty acid neurotransmitter and was the first endocannabinoid discovered by science. Within the body's endocannabinoid system, anandamide binds to cannabis receptors, the same receptors that react to THC when it enters the organism. There is some similarity in the effects generated by anandamide and THC, according to research. This is why, scientists have reasoned out, THC could be a powerful ingredient in autism treatment. 

Oxytocin, a hormone released in the hypothalamus and also known as one of the happiness hormones—is crucial for social behavior. Research suggests the oxytocin-driven anandamide signaling system may be at fault in persons with autism, so another group of scientists is looking to answer if CBD can help. 

Some more intriguing findings come from Israel, where, in 2018, a study carried out at the Shaare Zadek Medical Center gauged the effects of a cannabis plant extract and how children with severe forms of autism would react to it. Within the effort, 60 children where the behavioral pattern was affected were given cannabis with a 20:1 CBD-THC ratio.

In 61% of the children, parents reported that behavioral problems either "much improved" or "very much improved." Improved communication was reported in 47% of the children, and reduced anxiety in 39%. More than half of the children in this research either stopped taking medication, or their prescription was amended to include fewer medications. Less than 10% of the children still had to increase on drugs. 

Also on the not-so-bright side, most parents did report their child experienced at least some side effects from taking the cannabis extract. Hypervigilance, insomnia, irritation, restlessness, or loss of appetite were reported.

According to one more Israeli research, six months of treatment with oil containing 30% CBD and 1.5% THC found that a third of the 188 autism patients included ended up with an improved quality of life. Half of the patients reported moderate improvement. Restlessness was commonly reported as a side-effect of this administering. 

The THC-CBD ratio in cannabis medicines determines the balance between its therapeutic use and mind-altering potential. The combo of the compounds is often used in treatment, but finding the equilibrium is more than a challenge, especially for a delicate health condition like ASD, where children are also in question.

Epidiolex is the first CBD prescription greenlit by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018 to treat severe forms of epilepsy such as the Dravet syndrome and the Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. The seizure medicine does not contain any THC and is tolerated even in no older than 12-month babies. If medical research can find out the "Epidiolex" for autism patients, wouldn't that be the Holy Grail, the wonder drug that will help so many patients and their families? 

Stephen Andrews