The Benefits of Medical Marijuana and CBD Oil for Autism
Children’s Hospital will study medical marijuana’s effect on children with autism
An upcoming study at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will be the first of its kind in the United States to examine the benefits of medical marijuana in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The study is in partnership with an Australian biopharmaceutical company called Zelda Therapeutics, who will be funding the study.
Athena Zupp, the director of Children’s Hospital’s Center for Clinical Pharmacology, told philly.com that “the hospital will not provide any cannabis products to children. This is truly an observational study. We’re not giving them anything. We’re just gathering data to educate ourselves.” The researchers will be working with children who are already covered under Pennsylvania’s Safe Harbor Provision. (Wood, 2017) The study is expected to begin early this year.
Medications traditionally used to help children with ASD
In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, atypical antipsychotics are described as, “indispensable in the treatment of a variety of symptoms in autism.” The study examines the efficacy of haloperidol and risperidone for treating behavioral symptoms commonly associated with autism including aggression, anger, and self-injurious behaviors. It concludes that the medications can alleviate these behaviors when behavioral interventions are ineffective but warns that potential side effects must be considered and weighed.
The most common side effects listed include weight gain, hyperprolactinemia (elevated serum prolactin), sedation, adverse cognitive effects, and tardive dyskinesia (involuntary, repetitive body movements). (Posey, Stigler, Erickson, & McDougle, 2008) While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved these medications for use in children with autism, some parents are still wary of these potential side effects.
Can Medical Marijuana Treat Autism Symptoms?
Many parents of autistic children are advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana to help treat some of the symptoms of autism including reducing anxiety, self-injurious behaviors, sleep dysregulation, and trouble with social interactions.
Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA) is a parent advocacy group with chapters in seven U.S. states (Arizona, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Iowa, and Illinois). MAMMA’s goal is to give all children with autism legal access to medical marijuana under the care of a physician. The group’s website provides testimonials from 10 families who claim marijuana has greatly helped their child’s symptoms. Several of these families testimonials consider themselves “medical refugees” moving across state lines so their children will be eligible for the use of medical marijuana for seizures and other qualifying conditions.
Other families submitted testimonials anonymously and say they will continue to use marijuana illegally until legislation is passed in their states or autism is considered a qualifying condition. Most of the testimonials praise marijuana for helping their children reduce self-injurious behaviors and regulate their moods and sleep, with some families claiming that the plant reduced their child’s seizures, a common co-occurring symptom of autism. The families affiliated with MAMMA and other similar groups say medical marijuana alleviates their child from the side effects of traditional pharmaceuticals sometimes prescribed for children with autism including antipsychotic medications.
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Autism and CBD oil — Can CBD oil treat autism symptoms?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. CBD oil is hemp-derived and only contains trace amounts of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This means that CBD oil is not psychoactive and your child will not feel “high” after using the oil, unlike patients who use THC-containing medical marijuana.
The role CBD oil plays to decrease the symptoms of autism is twofold. Firstly, CBD oil can help some children with autism alleviate behavioral symptoms of autism such as anxiety, aggression, self-injurious behaviors, and trouble with social interactions. Secondly, CBD oil can help children with co-occurring seizures. Of course, each child’s experience with CBD oil is unique, but in states where medical marijuana is illegal parents are reporting positive CBD oil benefits for autism and epilepsy. Because CBD is not psychoactive, it is the option most parents prefer for their children over medical marijuana.
Many children who use CBD oil for autism and epilepsy find the same (or better) relief from their symptoms as they do with traditional anti-anxiety and anticonvulsant medications with the added bonus of fewer side effects. Researchers are still working to identify how CBD oil can help anxiety in autism, but for many families, the anecdotal evidence is sufficient for now.
Most common side effects of CBD oil for autism
As with most medications, there are potential side effects and health risks. While considered a relatively safe and well-tolerated drug, some side effects to watch for include:
- Low blood pressure
- Dry mouth
- Anxiety and depression
As with any medication, always seek the advice of a physician with any questions you may have regarding treatment and your child’s medical condition, never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it.
Can CBD oil help with aggression caused by autism?
Since parents have started using CBD oil to help ease aggression in their children caused by autism, the anecdotal evidence has been overwhelmingly positive. Some parents report that their children who used to be unreachable during fits of rage are able to implement calming techniques; other parents report decreased instances of physical violence.
In 2010, Lester Grinspoon, MD urged doctors to take this anecdotal evidence seriously and conduct further medical research on the effects of CBD oil on aggression. Many researchers are focused on the question of what causes autism aggression rather on guiding research efforts towards looking for ways to manage the aggression that many children with autism and his/her families have to navigate daily. CBD oil for anger and aggression is a welcomed option for many families who have previously tried medications traditionally used to help children with autism deal with strong emotions. As more research is done on medical marijuana, CBD oil, and autism, scientists will have a better idea of how CBD interacts with the brain of an autistic child and why it is so effective.
The benefits of Cannabidiol or CBD oil for autism and epilepsy
Scientists believe autism shares a strong link with epilepsy, a neurological condition that involves recurring seizures. According to recent studies reported by the American Epilepsy Society (AES), 30 percent of children diagnosed with autism also have epilepsy. According to scientists, these seizures may be the result of differences in brain development, which can make cells and neurons act abnormally. The anticonvulsant properties of the CBD oil are believed to help people with seizures and epilepsy.
According to CBD International, these properties work on different targets such as calcium ion channels, glutamate receptor antagonists, sodium ion channels, and the GATA system and receptor agonists, in the brain. “Anticonvulsants may affect the neurotransmitters responsible for sending messages or attach themselves to the neurons. This is done to alter the activity of the cell by switching how ions flow into and out of the neurons.”
International studies focus on children and medical marijuana and CBD oil
In January 2017, Dr. Aran, the director of the neuro-pediatric unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, spearheaded the inaugural clinical trial to determine medical marijuana’s effects on children with autism. The study followed 120 children and young adults with autism as they received CBD oil.
This compound contains low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is high in cannabinoids and is not psychoactive, therefore children receiving the oil did not feel “high.” Dr. Aran hopes to take the guesswork out of how medical marijuana helps children with autism so that they can be treated with more precision and lower risk of potential unknown effects with prolonged use. The results of this study are expected to be released in the coming months.
How to advocate for the legalization of medical marijuana for autism
Parents interested in advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana in their area or having autism listed as a qualifying condition can do so in a variety of ways. Contacting your local representatives via email, phone call, or setting up a meeting is an important step in letting your government know that it is an important issue for you. The more hospitals conduct studies on the impact of medical marijuana on children with autism, the more information will be available to parents and lawmakers.
Encouraging hospitals to begin their own studies and trials is crucial in gathering the information needed to learn more. Finally, joining a group like MAMMA could help you stay informed on new studies and advocacy opportunities.
CBD oil for autism — is it perfectly safe to administer to children?
Laws on CBD vary widely so always connect with your child’s doctor and confirm legality. It is also imperative to be on the lookout for fake CBD oil containing a synthetic compound which can make people very sick.
Where to buy CBD oil for autism
Of course, every parent’s main concern is his/her child’s health and safety. To be sure your child gets the most good from his/her experience with CBD oil you need to start with high-quality oil. If medical marijuana is legal in your state, a dispensary with an excellent reputation is a great place to look for oil for your child. Dispensaries.com has an interactive map to help you locate places to buy CBD oil for autism.
Your doctor can help you identify the best product for your child’s needs. If you live in an area where medical marijuana is not yet legal, health food stores will likely be the best place to find CBD oil.
How do I determine the best dosage for my child?
There is currently very little research on the best CBD oil dosage for autism. Finding what works best for your child will likely take some trial and error; however, the process might be an easier one for your child than with traditional prescription medication. The most common CBD oil side effects such as decreased appetite, fatigue, and drowsiness, are frequently reported at lower levels than with antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and anticonvulsants.
Contact your child’s pediatrician to help determine how much oil is safe for your child and if you have any concerns as to how he/she is responding to CBD oil.
Wood, S. (2017, December 11). Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to study medical marijuana and autism. Retrieved 2018, from http://www.philly.com/philly/business/cannabis/childrens-hospital-to-study-medical-marijuana-and-autism-20171211.html
Posey, D. J., Stigler, K. A., Erickson, C. A., & McDougle, C. J. (2008, January 02).
Antipsychotics in the treatment of autism. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2171144/
Risks and side effects. Retrieved from
Links to epilepsy and autism. Retrieved from
Katherine G. Hobbs is a freelance journalist and university student studying English, with an emphasis on journalism, and psychology. She is interested in the impact of having a special needs child on the family dynamic. Katherine is dedicated to bringing awareness of resources to families and providing help to those who love their autistic children. You can find her online at katherineghobbs.com.
Autism Parenting Magazine tries to deliver honest, unbiased reviews, resources, and advice, but please note that due to the variety of capabilities of people on the spectrum, information cannot be guaranteed by the magazine or its writers. Medical content, including but not limited to text, graphics, images, and other material contained within is never intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read within.