Despite the fact that most mainstream medical professionals remain skeptical about medical cannabis treatment for autism, more and more parents are seeing the beneficial effects of this form of treatment. As it stands, cannabis is still a controversial therapy for anything, let alone in autistic children. On top of all of this, even autism diagnosis sparks controversy between parents of autistic children, doctors and the media.
Controversies aside, autism is a lifelong neurological condition that, for many, remains resistant to treatment. There is currently no cure, nor any pharmaceutical medication for autism. Most parents of autistic children use counselling and behavioral therapies as forms of treatment for their children. While some parents see results, many do not.
With the controversy that surrounds autism comes plenty of media confusion, which doesn’t help the matter. Some media portray parents as monsters for giving their autistic children cannabis despite the lack of research. Other media uses a sensational form of propaganda, raving about how “pot saves a 9 year old from autism”. And then there are other schools of thought entirely, which don’t believe that autism is even a pathology to cure, but rather a difference to accept.
What is autism?
Autism is medical disorder typically only recognized in modern times. The term was first used in 1911 by a Swiss psychiatrist named Eugen Blueler to refer to a group of symptoms originally linked to schizophrenia. In 1942, Dr. Leo Kanner used “autism” as a way to describe children who exhibited emotional and social problems.
The confusion and trouble in defining exactly what autism is continues to escalate in medical circles. With that being said, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was put together by the American Psychiatric Association to assist doctors in the diagnosis of autism. According to this document, children with autism exhibit the following characteristics:
- Difficulty in communicating and interacting with people around them
- Difficulty interacting with the immediate environment
- Very specific interests and repetitive behaviors
- Symptoms the affect the child’s ability to participate in school work and other areas of everyday life
As you can see, the symptoms described can fit into any number of different mental or psychiatric illnesses, making autism particularly difficult to diagnose conclusively. This is why autism is a “spectrum” disorder, commonly known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Essentially, it means that there is quite a large number of variations of this condition, expressing itself in many different ways through different people. The type and severity of autism varies in each diagnosed person’s experience.
A starting point for research
In 2015, three researchers associated with the Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University took to exploring the existing research on cannabis treatment for autism. The overwhelming response is almost always the same: to understand what’s going on, we need more clinical trials performed on humans.
In the study, researchers wrote: “At this time, good evidence is almost entirely lacking for its application in pediatric developmental and behavioral conditions”. They also added that data collected from animal studies is a good starting point, but unfortunately does not translate to human subjects.
With all of that being said, the researchers on this team also shared some of their findings that suggest that future research is necessary:
One of the studies reviewed was conducted at Stanford University in 2013. The study took place on mice who had a rare genetic mutation linked to autism. It was found that in the affected mice, there was a deficiency in endocannabinoid signalling in the central nervous system. It was not the only study of its kind. Another study reviewed found the same result on mice subjects, suggesting that there might be promise for cannabinoid treatment in autistic children.
Ultimately, the data on this particular topic is extremely scarce, even more so than many other areas of cannabis research. Scott Hadland, John Knight and Sion Harris, the authors of this study, conclude that in fact, it is potentially harmful to conclude that cannabis is an appropriate treatment for autism. There is simply not enough evidence, and almost no human clinical trials. However, the current research suggests a dire need for further investigation into the potential of cannabis treatment for autism.
Israeli research and the pursuit of knowledge
So the authors of the study we just examined were very cautious when stipulating their results. Lack of evidence does not necessarily mean that cannabis use is unsafe. Newer research has shed some light on the matter, and in fact shows a lot of promise for parents of autistic children.
This research took place in Israel by Dr. Adi Aran and was published in the journal, Neurology in April 2018. Sixty children with ASD were treated with high concentration CBD oil that contained also a small amount of THC (a ratio of 20:1). In 61% of patients, behavioral outbreaks were significantly reduced, suggesting a huge improvement. In 39% of those treated, anxiety was improved and in 47% of cases, communication also significantly improved. Furthermore, disruptive behavior was reduced and even parents reported feeling much less stressed, even though they were not being treated with CBD!
Adi Aran concludes that CBD is a promising treatment for children diagnosed with autism. He acknowledges that this research still only supports the feasibility of CBD as a treatment option. As a result of this study, Aran has launched a much bigger, double-blind, placebo controlled research comprising of 120 children.
The anecdotal evidence is promising
As is the case with most evidence relating to cannabis as a form of therapy, the anecdotal evidence is miles ahead of the scientific evidence. The point is that parents are frustrated with the lack of options when it comes to treating autism, especially if their child is particularly resistant to traditional forms of therapy. Brave parents are proverbially jumping in the deep end and using cannabis as a last resort, some experiencing results that are nothing short of miraculous.
One such example is the story of Gavin, a five year old boy diagnosed with autism. He was prone to bouts of rage as well as cyclical vomiting. His mother, Rebecca, actually speculated that his bouts of rage were caused by a certain anticonvulsant medication that he was taking to treat his seizures. Finally, Rebeca resorted to a 1:1 THC:CBD oil and saw her son’s life dramatically turn around.
Then there is the story of Dina Dedes, whose parents didn’t consider cannabis therapy until she was 19 years old. Prone to violent episodes linked to her autism, one day Dina aggressively struck her father. It was at this point that her mother resorted to cannabinoid therapy. It took months of consulting doctors to finally get a prescription, and after they did, she describes her daughter’s recovery as “heaven sent”. Even the teachers working at Dina’s school called her mother to comment on the change that they were observing.
There is no lack of anecdotal evidence when it comes to parents treating their autistic children with CBD and THC. It is apparent that in each case, the ratio of CBD:THC required varies for each child, and that perhaps some experimentation is required to find the perfect dose. However, many parents express overwhelming relief at cannabis’ ability to drastically change the behavioral pattern of their children – and in a very short period of time.
Cannabis, children, and removing the fear
It is arguable that one of the reasons for the lack of research in this matter is that it relates to children. There is a huge fear surrounding the administration of cannabis to minors, putting roadblocks even in the clinical research of the issue. Even in states where cannabis is legal, autism is not a condition that qualifies for medical marijuana purely because it is a condition that relates to minors. In some states, child epilepsy has been approved as a qualifying condition, but as it stands, nowhere is autism a qualifying condition.
Some wary doctors may be justified in their fear of administering cannabis to children, cautious about the developmental issues this may cause. However, that doesn’t mean that the issue should not be researched at all. In fact, many parents would be glad to accept medical cannabis as a treatment if it was effective in giving their child some relief.
At the crux of it, autism is a condition that sufferers will have to live with for life. The symptoms are debilitating for both autistic children and their parents. It is not so crazy to assume minor potential side effects if it increases the quality of life for autism sufferers.