Autism is a mysterious condition with little-understood causes and treatments. The FDA has approved two antipsychotics for the irritability associated with autism, but the range of autism symptoms go far beyond irritability. Children and adults on the autism spectrum can have a range of challenges. For many, daily life is hampered by impaired social skills, lack of communication abilities, and repetitive and compulsive behaviors that can turn into self-injury.

Increasingly, parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, are turning to medical marijuana for relief. With autism on the list of serious medical conditions qualifying patients for Pennsylvania medical marijuana, families feel that hope has arrived.

Research on the horizon

For years, parents had little more than the anecdotes of other families to consider when deciding whether to try medical cannabis. Research in the U.S. was restricted due to federal bans on marijuana. However, international researchers are venturing into the space, and now, the door is cracking open for American researchers:

  • A researcher at Israel’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center is studying whether medical marijuana in a mix high in cannabidiol, or CBD, and low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, can ease behavioral problems. The researcher, Adi Aran, has already begun prescribing the 20-to-1 ratio marijuana for patients whose behavior can be violent, although he calls it a last resort, believing that other forms of autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome, can respond to traditional medications or therapy.
  • The Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, plans a 2019 study into CBD, the non-hallucinogenic ingredient known as cannabidiol, testing whether it is safe, tolerable, and helps ease ASD symptoms. It will also explore whether and how CBD alters or improves brain connectivity, and whether CBD alters the biomarkers of neuroinflammation, a nervous system condition associated with ASD.
  • Can cannabidivarin, another non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, reduce repetitive and aberrant behaviors? That’s the question behind two studies underway at Montefiore Medical Center, New York, asking if medical marijuana improves quality of life among children ages 5 to 18 diagnosed with moderate to severe autism.

The search for answers

With the dearth of research, it’s not entirely clear how medical marijuana works, but some believe that people with autism have low levels of endocannabinoids, those naturally occurring molecules in the brain affecting memory, motor functions, appetite, pain, mood, and sleep. Marijuana contains cannabinoids that can stimulate the receptors meant to rouse endocannabinoids into action.

While anecdotal evidence can be convincing, the point of conducting studies, say researchers and advocates, is creating a body of scientifically rigorous research equipping physicians to talk knowledgeably about all aspects of medical marijuana.

“We want scientific research so that a parent and a doctor can say, ‘Okay, here’s what the research shows,” said Scott Badesch, president of the Autism Society of America.

The American Academy of Pediatrics treads a fine line. It opposes legalization of marijuana due to data showing negative effects on health and brain development from birth through age 21, and also opposes medical marijuana “outside the regulatory process of the US Food and Drug Administration.” In that context, only Epidiolex, an FDA-approved pharmaceutical for rare seizures containing a purified CBD extract, fits the AAP’s definition of acceptable medical marijuana use for children.

However, “the AAP recognizes that marijuana may currently be an option for cannabinoid administration for children with life-limiting or severely debilitating conditions and for whom current therapies are inadequate,” reads the AAP’s recommendations for pediatricians.

As always, parents and caregivers of children and adults with severe forms of autism should talk to their doctors about all aspects of using medical marijuana. With a certification from a Pennsylvania registered physician, relief could be on the way.