Can Cannabis Treat Autism?

Published on August 31, 2015, By Gooey Rabinski

Conditions Marijuana Knowledge Base Medical

Nearly two million people in the United States suffer from autism, a brain development disorder that begins appearing in children younger than three. About four times more boys are affected than girls, with most diagnoses occurring during the first two years of life.

Autism most commonly impacts communication and social skills. Patients are often overly aggressive and hostile toward those around them. They often misinterpret the actions and statements of others, one facet of the challenges they face in terms of interpersonal communications.

Not a Specific Disease

Autism isn’t a specific disease, like Crohn’s or muscular dystrophy, but rather a variety of conditions officially labeled Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Some doctors will categorize severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, as a mild form of autism. Asperger Syndrome, a condition involving “social impairment, communication difficulties, and restrictive, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior” is also a form of autism.

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Rett Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that afflicts mostly females, is another example of ASD. It involves physical abnormalities, retarded growth of the brain, and a complete lack of verbal skills. Rett Syndrome results in seizures in 80 percent of patients, while 50 percent are unable to walk.
Cannabis helps relieve many of the symptoms suffered by autistic children and adults, including hyperactivity, attention disorders, seizures, panic disorders, anxiety, tantrums, destruction of property, and self-injury.

Endocannabinoid Deficiency

Some forms of autism are believed to result from an insufficient amount of endocannabinoids, the body’s own healthy molecules that are very similar to phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD provided by herbs like cannabis. A lack of endocannabinoids has been labeled endocannabinoid deficiency and is known to be responsible for a multitude of diseases and conditions.

It is theorized that this dysfunction in the production of proper levels of endocannabinoids may be one of the primary causes of autism.

The Autism Research Institute believes that many symptoms of autism can be mitigated through the use of properly titrated (dosed) cannabis:  

“Some of the symptoms medical marijuana has ameliorated include: Anxiety — even severe anxiety — aggression, panic disorder, generalized rage, tantrums, property destruction, and self-injurious behavior.”

The Institute points out that autism is a highly treatable condition, but that conventional pharmaceutical therapies — ranging from stimulants to antipsychotics — often deliver negative side effects.

Noted the Institute:

“Not all treatments are created equal; most commonly prescribed drugs have side effects that range from minor to severe to potentially fatal.”

The Studies

In 2013, a study published in the journal Neuron revealed that autism-related mutations in mice resulted in “deficits in endocannabinoid signaling.” The study concluded that “alterations in endocannabinoid signaling may contribute to autism pathophysiology.”

Reported University of Maryland neuroscientist Bradley Alger:

“It’s a very stimulating finding which could be a real turning point in understanding tonic endocannabinoids and how this otherwise mysterious lipid signaling really works.”

Also in 2013, researchers at Stanford University found that the symptoms of autism are caused by a gene mutation that both blocks the body’s natural production of endocannabinoids and also interferes with the way cannabinoids communicate with the brain.

Another study from 2013 that was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders revealed a link between the endocannabinoid system and immune cells in children with autism. Because immune dysfunction is a factor that contributes to autism, the condition is believed to be linked to higher levels of CB2 receptors in cells (CB1 receptors, on the contrary, were not overexpressed).

CB2 receptors play a significant role in regulation of the immune system. Because problems with the immune system are so closely related to autism, the authors of the study concluded that the use of cannabinoids and therapies that target CB2 receptors might be helpful for those who suffer from ASD.

Parent Testimonials

Many parents of autistic children who have been brave enough to experiment with medical cannabis have reported notable improvements.

Sam is an eight-year-old boy with autism who lives in Northern California. After witnessing the ironically negative effects of several pharmaceutical drugs on their son’s health (he gained 20 pounds and became increasingly belligerent when taking one of the drugs), they decided to legally (under California law) grow medical cannabis in their backyard for the purpose of treating their child.

After producing hash from the harvested herb, Sam’s parents fed him a very small piece of the gooey concentration of cannabinoids about twice per day. Because the cannabinoids had not been decarboxylated by a flame or vaporizer, Sam experienced none of the THC-derived psychoactive effects that come with smoking or vaping the flowers of the plant.

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Instead of consuming THC, Sam consumed mostly THC-A, the acidic precursor to THC that is one of the most effective cannabinoids delivered through cannabis juicing (another approach that the parents of children with ASD should consider).  

Sam’s parents reported that their son gained tremendous relief from his intense and anti-social symptoms by using medical cannabis.

“He got to a point where he was hurting other children at school and in public places,”

said Sam’s mother, Angela. His father, Steve, described the challenges of raising a son with severe ASD.

“One time he pulled a TV down [and] he knocked over all the furniture; I had to put him in a hold for maybe an hour. His whole body was spasming,”

said Steve. He continued:

“His behavior became relaxed and far less anxious than he had been at the time we gave him the [medical cannabis]. He started laughing for the first time in weeks. My wife and I were astonished with the effect.”

The parents described how their son not only became calm and more predictable in his behavior, but that his communications and interactions improved considerably.

“It was as if all the anxiety, rage, and hostility that had been haunting him melted away. Sam was physically more relaxed and began initiating physical contact, with the motivation being affection instead of aggression. It was amazing!”

Joey Hester-Perez is a 16-year-old boy who suffers autism. His mother, Meiko, claims he has gained tremendous, life-altering improvements from his use of medical cannabis to treat his condition.

Meiko Hester-Perez is co-founder of the Unconventional Foundation for Autism, an informational website with the goal of educating parents of autistic child regarding alternative treatment therapies. In 2009, she went on a media tour to promote the use of cannabis for autism, appearing on FOX Morning News, The Doctors on CBS, and ABC’s Good Morning America and 20/20.

“Although medical marijuana is not known to be a cure for autism, it has been proven to facilitate ‘life’ for my son and has ushered him into his most progressive developmental period ever. Today, at age 16, Joey is flourishing with new communicative expressions, he’s gained over 98 pounds, and he’s happier, healthier, better behaved, and is more productive than ever before.”

Alex Echols is an 11-year-old who suffers from a condition called tuberous sclerosis, a genetic disorder resulting in the growth of non-malignant tumors throughout his organs. In the case of Echols, tumors in his brain have resulted in autism, severe seizures, and violent rages.

His father, Jeremy, said that his son typically engages in violent, self-destructive behavior. He often slams his head into walls and slaps his face until it bleeds.

“Alex had every family of behavior medication known to the psychiatrist.”

wrote Karen Echols, the child’s mother, on the family’s Facebook page. In 2009, she discovered articles about medical cannabis as a treatment therapy for children with autism and rage.

The family decided to experiment with cannabis and obtained doctor approval for their son to use the herb. Following treatment, the boy’s progress was described as a “transformation”; his family said his improvement was “astounding.”

“Eventually we had some truly amazing results,”

wrote Jeremy Echols on his blog. He continued:

[Alex] explored his world with his hands, something he was very rarely able to do. His hands were the enemy up to this point…. But on those few truly magical days when we got the dosing just right, he played. He used his hands to explore. He looked at us and smiled.”

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Efficacy Varies

Because there are a wide variety of types and severities of autism, the efficacy of cannabis for one patient may be different than that of another. However, the benefits reported by the Echols and Hester-Perez families illustrate that the parents of children suffering from ASD should at least consider medical cannabis — and possibly experiment with it.

According to Steve, Sam’s father:

“It was just a medication that…gave us the results that we were always hoping for.”

Added his mother, Angela,

“He was happy. I think that really is a key, that he was happy again. He was smiling and laughing. We had lost that for so long; it was so sad. We wondered if we’d ever see that again.”

Not Without Controversy

Most medical applications of cannabis, for children or adults, are highly controversial. The use of medical marijuana for autism is certainly no exception. In August 2015, Michigan’s top state regulator, Mike Zimmer, rejected a state panel’s advice to add autism to its list of conditions qualifying for medical cannabis.

Supporters had hoped that Michigan would be the first state to permit the use of medical cannabis to treat autism. Out of 23 states with medical cannabis programs in effect, none currently allows use for autism. California and Washington, D.C., however, permit use of cannabis for any condition for which a doctor recommends it.

Until more research is conducted into the efficacy of cannabis for autism, those who support use of the herb to treat children and adults with this debilitating condition will be severely hampered. The Schedule I status of cannabis at the federal level, which legally defines it as having zero medicinal value and being as addictive as heroin, must change before academic research, including human trials, can be conducted.  

This post was originally published on August 31, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.

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