Key Points

  • Studies on CBD for autism are still limited, but there’s promising evidence that it may improve outcomes of core autism symptoms.
    While medical cannabis is not a standard treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it has been shown to be an effective source of relief from non-core symptoms or comorbidities.
  • Early clinical trials suggest that CBD has therapeutic effects on anxiety, irritability, and aggressiveness or self-injury.
  • Clinical data also indicate that CBD can significantly improve outcomes for patients with epilepsy. Traditionally, CBD is a well-known option for treatment-resistant seizures in Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome.
  • Low doses of CBD and trace amounts of THC have shown promise in managing behavioural problems associated with autism.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder caused by genetic and environmental factors. Approximately 700,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with autism. One in every 100 children has an ASD diagnosis.

There has been a growing interest in cannabis as a treatment for ASD. Several studies have suggested that CBD can improve the symptoms of ASD.

Anecdotally, many parents of children with autism say that cannabis helps their children with their symptoms. Standard reports include improved social skills, reduced anxiety and overall better mood.

But does medical cannabis for autism really work? What does the science have to say?

In this article, we’ll look at some of the most recent studies on medical cannabis for autism and see what conclusions we can draw about its effectiveness. We’ll also take a closer look at CBD and how it works in the body to improve symptoms of ASD potentially.

What is autism or ASD?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex condition that affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. The symptoms of ASD vary among children and may range from mild to severe.

ASD can be hard to diagnose and is often confused with other disorders. However, the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) lists three major symptom groups for ASD:

  • Problems with social interaction or social communication deficits
  • Restricted interests or activities
  • Repetitive “stimming” (self-stimulatory) behaviours that might include hand flapping or rocking back and forth, for example

There are also several different types of ASD: pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs), Asperger syndrome and autism. These disorders affect different areas of brain function and cause varying levels of impairment.

Recently, there has been a growing interest in non-core symptoms of autism. These comorbidities can be as debilitating as the core symptoms, but they are often overlooked because they don’t fit neatly into any one category.

Such non-core symptoms include:

  • Epilepsy and other neurological abnormalities
  • Chronic pain
  • Frequent headaches
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Tics and Tourette’s syndrome
  • Increased likelihood of having food, respiratory, and skin allergies
  • Gastrointestinal disorders

What is medical cannabis? How does medical CBD work?

CBD is a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis. It interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which regulates many of our body’s functions.

Medical CBD works by directly and indirectly interacting with receptors in the ECS. The ECS regulates things like pain, mood, appetite and sleep. Other functions include:

  • Inflammation and immune response
  • Stress responses and anxiety
  • Hormonal regulation

Aside from CBD, cannabis also contains another potent cannabinoid known as THC. THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis. It’s what creates the “high” feeling after consuming cannabis.

While THC does have medical benefits, it can also cause adverse side effects for some patients. You may want to consider using a CBD-only product as an alternative if you’re looking for relief without any high.

A 2021 review in the Journal of Cannabis Research found that a high dose of CBD combined with a low dose of THC could be an effective treatment for behavioural symptoms. It’s also important to note that these studies involved medication that contained high CBD instead of other cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis.

CBD and the endocannabinoid system are closely linked

CBD is a compound found in cannabis plants that don’t get you high but do have therapeutic properties for treating things like pain, inflammation and seizures.

It also works on our endocannabinoid system (ECS), which regulates several physiological processes, including appetite control, moods/emotions and memory retention, and immune responses such as inflammation reduction.

Given the modulating role of the ECS, we’re beginning to understand that CBD could be used to help treat a wide range of conditions, from chronic pain and inflammation, anxiety and depression to epilepsy. Coincidentally, all these conditions could just be symptoms of an even more complex condition like ASD.

At the moment, there aren’t any studies that have explored CBD as a treatment for ASD. But there are some promising results from both preclinical trials done in clinics.

Do medical cannabis and CBD help treat autism?

When it comes to CBD treatments for autism, clinical studies bring to light its role in alleviating non-core symptoms. In a 2020 review, paediatricians found that CBD showed positive outcomes for treating particular ASD-related symptoms.

Epilepsy and seizures

In that same review, 20 of the 22 patients diagnosed with epilepsy said their seizures were better controlled after taking the CBD medication.

Epileptic seizures are commonly associated with ASD. Although 1-2% of children in the general population develops epilepsy, studies have found that this condition is much more common among individuals with autism spectrum disorders—estimates range from 5%-38%.

Cannabis, particularly CBD, has consistently proven to have the ability to reduce the severity and frequency of seizures. It’s even effective for treatment-resistant epilepsy, such as in patients with Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

Aggression

Aggression is among the most commonly reported behavioural problem in ASD and can occur at all ages. Although people with ASD are not inherently aggressive, they may act out if they feel threatened or frustrated and lack the ability to communicate their needs.

According to one study, approximately 20% of children with autism spectrum disorders experience aggressive behaviour. More worrying still is that standard treatments do not benefit approximately 40% of children with ASD.

In this clinical trial, the paediatricians noted a 60% improvement in behaviour after administering medical cannabis oil for autism. Anecdotal stories also claim that cannabis oil reduces hostility towards others.

Despite these findings, it is still important to remember that a larger-scale study is needed to confirm these results. The study also noted that cannabis oil for autism should only be used under the supervision of a medical professional.

GI issues like constipation, chronic diarrhoea and vomiting

Children with ASD are more likely to suffer gastrointestinal (GI) issues like constipation, chronic diarrhoea and vomiting. A 2017 study found that children with ASD were twice as likely to suffer from GI problems than those without the condition.

The use of whole-plant cannabis and CBD has anecdotally been shown to help these symptoms. Various researchers are currently investigating this association.

Currently, doctors can prescribe cannabinoids in prescription form (e.g. Dronabinol) to help with symptoms of nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite among chemotherapy patients.

It’s also been hypothesised that CBD can restore microbiota balance in the gastrointestinal tract. Common GI conditions like Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC) stem from an imbalance of gut bacteria.

If you are considering CBD oil for autism, it is essential to look at their specific symptoms and find out what is causing them. You may need to use THC-free products or find another type of treatment altogether if it does not work well with their condition.

Anxiety and sleep problems

Anxiety in ASD is difficult to pinpoint correctly. Hence, health practitioners look at symptoms such as:

  • insomnia or sleep problems
  • self-injury outbursts
  • sensory overload or lack of response to stimuli

Research suggests that up to 40 per cent of people with autism spectrum disorder suffer from anxiety disorders. Anxiety manifests differently in every ASD patient, so a professional consult matters.

If the ASD patient also suffers from anxiety or insomnia, cannabis may also help. Research has shown that CBD oil and other forms of cannabis can help improve sleep quality.

Pain

Pain perception is highly complex among patients with ASD. Some ASD patients cannot perceive pain in the first place, while others have a heightened pain sensitivity.

Research suggests that CBD oil can help modulate this perception, making it easier for patients with an autism spectrum disorder to deal with physical pain when necessary.

Despite this, there remains a lack of clinical trials dedicated to investigating how cannabis for anxiety can directly affect pain. Nevertheless, it is a factor worth considering before pursuing a CBD treatment plan.

Depression and other mental health conditions

Diagnosing depression among ASD patients remains a difficult task. The symptoms of depression and anxiety among ASD patients are similar to those of the general population, but they can be more challenging to identify.

In some cases, depression can manifest as a lack of interest in social interactions or repetitive behaviours that don’t provide pleasure.

If the ASD patient does qualify for depression treatment, CBD may help improve outcomes. Studies involving animal models have shown that CBD can reduce anxiety and depression. Clinical trials, however, are needed to determine whether the results of these experiments translate to humans.

Which medical cannabis oil is good for autism?

As it stands, medical cannabis for autism is still a grey area of ASD treatment. Most studies on CBD and autism are still in the early stages, so there’s not a lot of conclusive evidence that it helps treat symptoms.

Some clinics have begun administering CBD to treat non-core symptoms of ASD. Although there’s not a lot of research on cannabis oil for autism, some recommend it as part of an overall treatment plan.

Users also report medical cannabis oil for autism as an alternative to traditional ASD medication. Patients with ASD sometimes need to take antipsychotic, anticonvulsant, and mood-stabilizing medications to control their behaviour.

Such medications can lead to several serious side effects, such as kidney and liver damage, among others. While CBD oil can lead to side effects too, users report them as less harsh and debilitating than that traditional ASD medications.

That being said, it still is best to seek the professional advice of a specialist or medical practitioner with experience handing over CBD-based solutions. A professional can help determine whether a patient’s case merits the use of cannabis medication.

Conclusion – Cannabis for Autism

The evidence is mounting that cannabis can help autistic children with their symptoms. However, the lack of scientific research and clinical trials means we still cannot fully consider it a treatment option.

Still, many parents and adult patients swear by CBD oil to treat ASD symptoms. In addition, there are studies conducted now that may help shed some light on how cannabis affects autism spectrum disorders.

If you are a parent of an autistic child or wish to explore the option of cannabis for autism, it is best to consult a doctor or a specialist. This will help you determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks associated with using CBD oil as a treatment for ASD symptoms.

At the Medical Cannabis Clinics, we are dedicated to helping you find the proper treatment for your condition. Book an online appointment with one of our doctors to discuss your treatment options.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the best medical cannabis for autism?

To find the best cannabis dose for your autism, you should speak to a specialist or licensed health professional. A specialist will guide you through your child’s best treatment (oil, supplement, etc.) and can answer any questions you may have.

Is medical cannabis legal in the UK for kids with autism?

To gain access to medical cannabis for autism, you must secure a prescription from a specialist doctor. Getting a dose from the NHS is difficult, so we recommend going to private practices.

Is autism a diagnosis for medical cannabis yet?

While autism is not an official diagnosis for medical cannabis, your or your child’s situation may qualify for treatment. Some of the most common symptoms that can be treated with medical cannabis are epilepsy, anxiety, and other neurological disorders.

Can you use medical cannabis for outbursts of rage in autism?

Yes, a CBD medication can help reduce aggression and rage in children with autism. In fact, aggressive behaviour is one of the signifiers to qualify for CBD treatment.

Where to shop for medical cannabis for adult autism?

A medical cannabis prescription must be filled at a specialised pharmacy. When you receive your written prescription, the dispensary will assign one you can use as needed.

References

https://jcannabisresearch.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s42238-021-00108-7
https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-019-2259-4
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0953620518300037
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34043900/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1071909120300449?via%3Dihub
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cch.12909
https://doi.org/10.53053/XDRX4830