According to the Autism Society of America, about one percent of the world population is born with some kind of ASD. In the US, the prevalence rate is 1 in 59 births, and it’s estimated that over 3.5 million Americans live with some kind of autism disorder.
Although there is no known cure for autism, treatment usually includes behavioral modification therapy, but in many cases, patients can also be prescribed with antipsychotics and antidepressants, which can have serious side effects like facial ticks, seizures and liver damage. The possibility of replacing these medications with a more natural alternative has lead patients and their families to become especially interested in cannabis, yet, lacking a proper record of clinical studies, medical professionals can still show skepticism towards this type of treatment.
Since CBD-based medicine became accepted as an effective and natural treatment for epilepsy-related seizures, numerous families began contemplating the cannabinoid as a way to calm symptoms in children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders).
Anecdotal evidence has started to gather up in recent years, with an increasingly growing number of patients (especially children) finding relief in the use CBD-rich cannabis, for symptoms like anxiety, aggression, panic, tantrums and self-injurious behavior.
In the past year alone, the University of California, San Diego, the Montefiore Medical Center, New York, and Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Israel, have all announced new clinical trials investigating the effects of cannabis compounds on children with autism.
The main compound of interest is CBD. Famed and marketed for its therapeutic effects worldwide, researchers are interested in whether the cannabinoid can safely alter the children’s neural activity and alleviate the more distressing symptoms of ASD, such as self-harm, hyperactivity, and communication disorders.
While some of these trials have yet to be published, others are causing a stir.
A recent study out of Israel, which approved cannabis research in 2007, gives parents new evidence to back up those claims. Published Jan 17. in the journal Nature, the study found that yes, cannabis can relieve some of the symptoms suffered by many autistic people, including seizures, restlessness, and rage attacks.
“Cannabis in ASD patients appears to be well tolerated, safe and effective option to relieve symptoms associated with ASD.”
The study, “Real Life Experience of Medical Cannabis Treatment in Autism; Analysis of Safety and Efficacy,” followed 188 autism spectrum disorder (ASD) patients over a six-month period. The subjects were mostly male (81.9%) and had a mean age of 12.9 years, with 14 of the participants younger than five, 70 patients between six and 10, and 72 patients between 11 and 18. Their autism symptoms included “restlessness, rage attacks, agitation, speech impairment, cognitive impairment, anxiety, incontinence, depression and more.”
“Although many with autism are being treated today with medical cannabis, there is a significant lack of knowledge regarding the safety profile and the specific symptoms that are most likely to improve under cannabis treatment,” wrote the study’s authors, Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider, Raphael Mechoulam, Naama Saban, Gal Meiri, and Victor Novack.
The aims of the study were straightforward: “to characterize the patient population receiving medical cannabis treatment for autism and to evaluate the safety and efficacy of this therapy.”
Its conclusion is emphatic: “Cannabis in ASD patients appears to be well tolerated, safe and effective option to relieve symptoms associated with ASD.”
The doses were not a one-size-fits all application—some patients received a drop of oil three times a day that contained 15 milligrams CBD and 0.75 mg THC. Others received up to 20 drops of oil three times a day.
Though the study is a step forward for demonstrating that cannabis can help autistic people, the researchers believe more work needs to be done. “While this study suggest that cannabis treatment is safe and can improve ASD symptoms and improve ASD patient’s quality of life, we believe that double blind placebo-controlled trials are crucial for a better understanding of the cannabis effect on ASD patients.”
Treatment and Findings
Parents have often reported that cannabis and CBD help calm their autistic children and help them focus. And for children who suffer from epileptic seizures, cannabis can help decrease the frequency. Parents such as Brandy Williams, a cannabis activist in Arizona, gave cannabis to her autistic son Logan, who experienced epileptic seizures, and noticed significant changes. He stopped rocking back and forth, and he was able to communicate more clearly. Most of the subjects in the Israel study were given cannabis oil (30% CBD and 1.5% THC). According to a representative for Tikun Olam, the largest medical cannabis provider in Israel, the cannabis oil was derived from the proprietary strain Avidekel, developed to give patients the benefit of whole-plant cannabis medicine with minimal psychoactive effects.
One month into the trial, respondents were asked to rate their quality of life using the Likert scale “ranging from very poor to poor, neither poor nor good and good to very good,” and report side effects to provide a better yardstick for the final results.
At the end of the study’s six-month course, 155 subjects of the original 188 were still in active treatment. Others had dropped out or began a different treatment option. Of those 155 patients, 93 had been assessed through questionnaires.
Of those 93 patients, 28 (30.1%) reported a “significant” improvement, 50 patients (53.7%) reported a “moderate” improvement, and six (6.4%) reported a “slight” improvement. Only 8 patients (8.6%) showed no change in their condition.
Roughly a quarter of the assessed patients (25.2%) experienced some form of side effect, but most were minor. The most common was restlessness, which was reported by 6.6% of subjects. Others included sleepiness (3.2%), a psychoactive effect (3.2%), increased appetite (3.2%), digestion problems (3.2%), dry mouth (2.2%) and lack of appetite (2.2%).