A few small studies and anecdotal sources suggest that autistic people may benefit from the therapeutic effects of cannabis. However, there is currently insufficient evidence to support this claim.
The brains of autistic people and people without autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop differently. As a result, people with autism may behave, interact, and learn differently than people without ASD.
Having ASD can lead to repetitive behavioral patterns and some difficulties in social interactions. ASD also sometimes causes delayed speech development, hyperactivity, seizures, and gastrointestinal problems.
Medications can treat some symptoms of ASD. Even though ASD symptoms have a negative impact on quality of life, a person might consider trying medicinal cannabis.
Read on to learn more about ASD and cannabis use, including the risks, potential benefits, and some other alternative ways to reduce specific symptoms.
Autism is heavily stigmatized. In general, medical experts don’t believe there is a cure. And people with autism may feel that no treatment, treatment, or cure is needed.
In the meantime, researchers continue to explore the therapeutic uses of cannabis. According to a 2018 review, there is conclusive evidence that cannabis can treat:
- pain in adults
- Nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy
- Muscle spasms and strains associated with multiple sclerosis
The author of this review also found moderate evidence for:
- secondary sleep disorders
While this review made no mention of ASD, the 2019 research analyzed the existing peer-reviewed literature on cannabis as an ASD treatment. The authors concluded that there is a lack of clear evidence that cannabis reduces symptoms of autism.
The team stressed the urgent need for large-scale studies to improve understanding of the risks and potential benefits.
However, other studies and anecdotal reports suggest that cannabis may benefit people with certain ASD symptoms. For example, a 2021 review authors concluded that cannabis and natural compounds in the plant called cannabinoids could be an effective alternative therapy for ASD symptoms.
The authors of the 2021 review found that cannabis products can reduce the frequency and intensity of a number of symptoms, including:
- Attacks of self-mutilation and anger
- sleep disturbance
- Psychomotor arousal involving activity without purpose, such as B. pacing up and down the room or tapping your toes
They also found evidence that cannabis can improve:
- sensitivity of the senses
- social interaction
Also in 2021, a Minnesota State University researcher conducted a review of the scientific literature on autism and marijuana in children. The results suggest that cannabis can help reduce the severity of symptoms, which include:
- social communication
- self harm
The researcher also found benefits for conditions that can also affect autistic children, including:
- fear and nervousness
- sleep disturbance
- Hyperactivity or concentration problems associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
The treatment resulted in a reduced need for medication in some participants.
A 2019 study looked at the effects of cannabidiol (CBD) in 53 children with ASD. The children were on average 11 years old. Nurses taught parents how to administer CBD oil orally. The children received the treatment for an average of 66 days.
The team found that nearly 70% of children who experienced tantrums showed an improvement in this symptom.
Likewise, about 70% of children with hyperactivity also showed improvements. And of the 21 children with sleeping problems, over 70% showed an improvement. Almost half of the 17 children with anxiety showed a reduction after taking CBD.
Most researchers agree that drawing firm conclusions about the effects of cannabis on ASD requires large-scale, high-quality clinical trials.
The above studies describe several common side effects of cannabis as an ASD treatment, most of which appear to be mild. Side effects include:
- sleep disorders
- appetite changes
The Minnesota State University study also identified an episode of psychosis that required treatment.
In 2019, researchers analyzed reviews to assess the effects of medicinal cannabis. They found side effects in 49 out of 59, or 83%, of reviews comparing the effects of cannabis to placebo. They found adverse effects in 20 out of 24, also 83%, of reviews comparing cannabis to drugs.
More than half of the reviews reported minor side effects like drowsiness and dizziness. But 21 of the 59 reviews reporting side effects found serious harm.
It’s worth noting that some reviews focused on synthetic cannabinoids rather than compounds extracted from the plant. Research shows that synthetic cannabinoids can have more serious side effects than plant-based cannabinoids.
Some researchers also warn that ingesting cannabis could have long-term effects that experts don’t yet fully understand.
A multi-centre survey suggests that 44.8% of autistic adults in Germany are currently using or have used complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
Some examples of CAM used to treat symptoms of autism include:
- Animal Assisted Therapy
Although these therapies are unlikely to have serious side effects, little scientific evidence suggests they treat ASD symptoms.
However, there is some evidence that changing your diet can help. For example, a 2019 study found that daily intake of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids might improve some ASD symptoms. Participants received 722 milligrams of docosahexaenoic acid with or without 2,000 international units of vitamin D3. This study involved 73 autistic children aged 2.5 to 8 years in New Zealand.
Some people also consider chelation therapy, a procedure to remove heavy metals from the body, as a treatment for some symptoms of autism.
While a 2017 study suggests there may be a link between toxic metal intake, essential element deficiencies and the risk and severity of ASD, there is little evidence that chelation therapy is safe in this context or is effective. It has the potential to cause serious harm, including calcium deficiency, kidney damage, and death.
Some research suggests that cannabis may help treat certain ASD symptoms in some people, although there are risks. Overall, drawing conclusions requires more high-quality clinical trials.
People are also considering a number of other alternative therapies, although most have little scientific support.