Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), commonly known as autism, is a neurological and developmental condition that affects how people experience and interact with the world.
The word “spectrum” reveals that autism presents in varied ways and at different levels of severity. Common symptoms someone with autism might experience, or that might be observable to others include:
- Difficulty interacting and communicating with other people
- Finding it hard to understand how others are feeling based on their facial expressions
- Sensory issues; bright lights or loud noises can be overwhelming or uncomfortable
- Focusing only on a few highly specific interests
- Differences in body language, like reduced eye contact
- Repetitive movements or sounds
- Angry outbursts and self-injuring behaviors
It isn’t clear what causes autism, although genetics may play a role.
Our cultural and medical perspective on ASD has changed in recent years, and it is now recognized as a neurological difference rather than something that we should seek to “cure”. However, ASD can cause uncomfortable symptoms, such as anxiety, for many people who have it, so research has turned to efforts to ease those symptoms.
Some studies have found that cannabis may help people with autism. A 2021 research review found “solid evidence that unbalanced ECS ( endocannabinoid system) signaling is involved in the occurrence of ASD”.
Cannabis interacts with the ECS to restore balance in the body. It can therefore help maintain a healthy central nervous system, possibly improving the symptoms of ASD at the same time.
How Can Marijuana Be Used Medically?
It’s no secret that cannabis has helped people across the world gain a greater sense of wellbeing. Many people use medical marijuana to help soothe the symptoms of chronic conditions.
As researchers continue to carry out studies, what scientific evidence do we have for medical marijuana so far? A 2018 review found there is now conclusive evidence cannabis can treat:
- Nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy
- Muscle spasms and tightness associated with multiple sclerosis
There are also studies that support the use of cannabis for other uses, like improving immunity, lowering blood pressure, and reducing the frequency of epileptic seizures. Cannabis is a powerful anti-inflammatory, which makes it excellent for relieving arthritis, treating skin conditions like acne, and accelerating healing after surgery.
What Are Some ASD Symptoms Medical Marijuana May Help Alleviate?
Cannabis can be especially useful when there’s a current gap in treatments for a condition.
There is no “cure” for autism, and none is needed. However, there are also no drugs approved in the US to treat the core symptoms or cognitive problems that often come with autism. And since comorbidities can include conditions like OCD, anxiety and insomnia, ASD can be incredibly difficult for children, adults and families to live with.
In recent studies, cannabis has been found to be well-tolerated and effective for relieving symptoms of ASD. In a 2019 study that assessed 93 patients after six months of treatment with cannabis oil, 84% reported a moderate or significant improvement in their ASD symptoms. A 2021 review from a Minnesota researcher found experimental treatment with cannabis led to a reduced need for medication in some participants.
So what are the ASD symptoms medical marijuana could help?
A report in Israel on treating children with autism with CBD-rich cannabis found behavioral outbreaks were much improved or very much improved for 61% of the 60 patients. And in a study in Turkey, 33 children with autism were treated with CBD over a 2-year period. A decrease in behavioral problems was found in 32% of patients.
Inability to communicate
Children and adults with autism can find it difficult to convey their thoughts to others using spoken language. The same Turkish study as above found an increase in expressive language in 23% of patients after treatment with CBD.
Both social anxiety and generalized anxiety (GAD) are prevalent in people with autism. A second study in Israel on 53 children with ASD found levels of anxiety improved in 47% of patients. We wrote another blog post on the strong links between anxiety and cannabis here.
The same study that found an improvement in anxiety also reported that 68% of the participants experienced fewer episodes of anger and self-injury during treatment. You can read our take on anger management and marijuana here.
Insomnia is a common source of distress in adults with ASD, with both atypical social skills and sensory reactivity affecting their circadian system. The researchers in Israel noted an improvement in sleep problems in 71% of participants.
Hyperactivity is one of the most common symptoms in children diagnosed with ASD. A review of studies was carried out in Brazil in 2022, and researchers found cannabis reduced the number and/or intensity of many symptoms, including hyperactivity. In the latter study in Israel referenced above, hyperactivity symptoms improved in 68% of patients.
Are There Any Side Effects of Medical Marijuana For ASD?
Generally speaking, participants have only experienced, at most, mild side effects in research studies. Noted side effects include:
- Appetite changes
- Disturbed sleep
- Increased sleep
Of course, cannabis affects everyone differently, and there can be exceptions. In the study on 60 children with autism we referenced earlier, one girl used higher THC-content cannabis and had a transient serious psychotic event.
It’s important to be aware that any new treatment presents some risk of an adverse reaction, and cannabis is no exception. It’s also worth noting that some studies were conducted using synthetic cannabinoids, rather than compounds extracted from the cannabis plant. Recent evidence suggests these synthetic substances can have more serious side effects than plant-based cannabinoids.
Check out more information on the general safety and side effects of cannabis here.
Tips For Using Medical Marijuana For Autism in Florida
The research we have so far pertaining to marijuana and autism is mainly carried out using high-CBD strains with low THC content. And in a minority of users, THC can increase anxiety, depression and paranoia. As ASD alone can cause or exacerbate these conditions, high-THC strains should be approached with extra caution — just in case.
But every autistic person is unique, autism is a wide spectrum, and there isn’t an easy answer for which cannabis strain will work best for treating symptoms of autism. If you or a loved one is struggling with symptoms of ASD and wants to try out cannabis to treat them, speak to a healthcare professional to learn more. And if you live in Florida and are looking for any specific strain, visit one of our budtenders in-store for help.