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The Scientific Case For Treating Autism with Medical Marijuana

by Tina Richardson October 04, 2019

The Scientific Case for Treating Autism with Medical Marijuana blog post

Medical marijuana is being used as a natural alternative to treat or reduce the symptoms of a growing number of psychiatric and developmental disorders. And while many people remain skeptical about the health-positive benefits of medical marijuana, some experts and recent studies provide evidence it could be the real deal.

As of this writing, most research exploring the viability of medical marijuana for autism is based on observational study. This mostly involves detailed questionnaires given to parents of children with the disorder. Stories and anecdotal reports are also frequently cited.

Can this really provide ample data for parents to confidently make the switch from conventional forms of medication?

What Is Autism and What Are Some Of Its Most Common Symptoms?

Mother and child autism treatment

Autism (contemporarily known as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD) is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulty with communication and social interaction, particularly in reading emotions and social cues. 

It is commonly accompanied by repetitive patterns of speech, thoughts, and behaviors. In more severe cases, it can even be accompanied by seizures, tics, and chronic restlessness.

Being a developmental disorder, symptoms of autism are usually apparent within the first two years of life – and are considerably easier to manage if diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

In this post, we go over the treatments traditionally used for autism, marijuana's history thus far as a medicinal or therapeutic alternative, and the currently unexplored long-term implications of using marijuana to treat individuals with autism.

What Are Some of The More Conventional Treatments & Medications For Autism?

It's important to note that there is currently no cure for autism. However, there are a number of treatments that can help to manage symptoms as well as greatly improve the quality of life for individuals with the disorder. For obvious reasons, it's best if these begin immediately after diagnosis, which can and should be done as early in life as possible. We'll start by going over the traditional forms of therapy for autism, in no particular order.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a highly-engaging verbal form of therapy wherein patients learn to make distinctions and connections between behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. According to an independent systematic review conducted in 2010, CBT can help individuals with autism not only in identifying feelings and thoughts that trigger negative behaviors but in managing anxiety from their disorder as well.|
  • Occupational Therapy (OT) is focused on teaching individuals the fundamental skills needed to live their everyday lives independently. For children with autism, this can involve anything from self-care, writing, speech and motor skills. For young adults and older, occupational therapy typically involves the development of important skills including domestic care, personal care and the handling of money.
  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) uses a scientifically constructed reward system to teach and encourage positive behaviors in individuals across a range of different techniques. ABA is currently one of the most common approaches to treating both children and adults with autism due to its impressive rate of success. ABA techniques include Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI), Verbal Behavioral Intervention (VBI), Discrete Trial Training (DTT), Positive Behavioral Support (PBS) and Pivotal Response Training (PRT).
  • Social Skills Training (SST) is a fairly intuitive form of therapy aimed at teaching, encouraging and enforcing positive behaviors in social interaction. This is a particularly important form of therapy for individuals with autism, who struggle with socialization from a very early age. SST teaches standard social skills such as communication, listening skills, emotional cues and understanding of humor.

    SST is typically recommended for children as well as teenagers and young adults, while adults can opt for more optimized forms of interactive therapy, such as Speech Therapy (ST) and Sensory Integration Therapy (SIT).

Treatment of autism via medication, on the other hand, is much more limited in terms of options. As of this writing, Risperidone and Apripiprazole are the only FDA-approved drugs for autism, although qualified health professionals may prescribe other medications for conditions they consider to be linked to the disorder.

We continue with a brief look at the most commonly prescribed medications for autism, in order of relevance.

  • Risperidone more commonly known by the brand name Risperdal, is frequently prescribed to children and teens up to the age of 16 in order to manage irritability and anxiety. In some cases, Apripiprazole – better known by the brand name Abilify – is used for the same purpose.
  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) regulate serotonin activity in the brain. As a neurotransmitter that carries signals between brain cells, serotonin imbalances can be related to mood disorders associated with autism in adults and children.
  • Anticonvulsants are often prescribed out of necessity for individuals with more severe associated symptoms of autism. According to a 2012 study by Richard E. Frye, as much as 38% of individuals with autism also suffer from epilepsy and seizures.

Due to fear of side effects explicitly stated on many of the drugs in the above categories, parents are usually hesitant to medicate children with autism. Instead, they endeavor to reinforce behavioral therapies their children undergo with strategies taught by qualified professionals to manage symptoms of the disorder at home.

Sadly, this still begs the question of whether the parents are doing everything they can to improve the child's overall quality of life.

Medical Marijuana's Track Record on Chronic, Psychiatric & Developmental Disorders

Since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, it's been prized among a rapidly growing number of Americans as highly effective at treating chronic pain, anxiety and even nausea or vomiting that comes with cancer chemotherapy. In fact, the only cause for public apprehension has been the psychoactive properties of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of two primary compounds in the marijuana plant. 

However, its second primary cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) has no known psychoactive effects. A 2018 report from Harvard Medical School reviewed compelling evidence of CBD's viability for treating childhood epilepsy syndromes – such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS) – as well as chronic pain and anxiety disorders. Various other studies substantiate the many potential health-positive properties of CBD, including analgesic, anxiolytic and antiemetic benefits. 

CBD's Viability for Treating Accompanying Symptoms of Autism
There's more than enough evidence in scientific literature to suggest that CBD has the potential to treat many common symptoms of autism. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Epilepsy
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia

CBD is also incredibly versatile. It can be consumed in the form of CBD oils, isolates, or capsules. It's available in various edible forms such as gummy bears and infused hard candies. For adults, it can even be vaped using one of a massive selection of personal vaporizers currently in the vape market.

Given CBD's effectiveness, availability, versatility and lack of psychoactivity, it certainly bolsters the case for the use of medical marijuana for treating symptoms of autism. It's important to note that this is not a new or radical idea, as doctors have been prescribing CBD to treat developmental disorders in children for some time now.

Marijuana Compounds for Autism & The Need For Long-Term Studies

As is the case with any new form of prospective medication, studies and research will be needed to explore its potential long-term side effects. There's also a significant degree of specificity in this case: there are virtually no studies showcasing benefits in using medical marijuana to treat autism, due to the presence of the psychoactive compound THC. However, isolated forms of CBD are another matter entirely.

medical marijuana

CBD is already commonly used to treat many disorders and conditions that can occur with autism, such as mood disorders and epilepsy. While autism itself has no cure as of this writing, the treatment of accompanying symptoms can dramatically improve the quality of life of a child, teenager or adult with the disorder. Most importantly, it prevents autism from becoming a debilitating issue – one which isolates individuals by disrupting their ability to work, live independently or maintain relationships.

There's currently a lack of studies that analyze the long-term effects of CBD consumption starting at an early age. Such data would obviously be key in the case of determining CBD's viability in treating autism; as a developmental disorder, it must be diagnosed and managed as early in life as possible. It's likely the lack of study on this subject is due to the complications involved in acquiring adequate sample sizes for such a specific scenario.

Perhaps with time and continued advocacy, medical professionals and state legislators can acquire the necessary data to definitively rule on the viability of medical marijuana and its compounds for treating symptoms of autism.



Tina Richardson
Tina Richardson

Tina is co-publisher of Dopa. Websites can't meet website accessibility standards without sacrificing design, interactivity and general user experience for visitors without disabilities (paying 50% more for designers and coders might help, but would still fall short). That's where Dopa, a site about psychological disorders, comes in. They are 100% accessibility compliant and use minimalistic design for those with low vision or cognitive challenges.

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