Speculation about the potential benefits of cannabis for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has grown considerably in recent years, yet in the absence of any large scale clinical trials, such claims lack scientific credibility. However, a new study released by Minnesota State University has found evidence that cannabis significantly alleviates numerous core and noncore ASD symptoms, with study author Mai Xiong concluding that the plant should be considered as a treatment for children with autism[i].
Cannabis And Autism
The new paper is a review study that looked at all previously published work concerning the effects of cannabis on autism symptoms in young people. Individually, the studies included in the review cannot be considered conclusive since they each involve a very small number of children, yet when looked at collectively, the patterns they reveal suddenly become much more definitive.
Before discussing the data regarding the influence of cannabis over autism symptoms in humans, the study looks at the rationale that underlies the use of cannabinoids for ASD treatment. For instance, the endocannabinoid system is known to regulate emotional behaviours, social communication, cognition, learning, memory and a range of other factors associated with autism.
Preclinical work on rodents has shown that disruptions to the endocannabinoid system produce “attention and working memory deficits, hyperactivity, repetitive behaviors, anxiety-related phenotypes, altered social behaviors, and increases susceptibility to audiogenic seizures.” The restoration of function within this system, however, was found to attenuate these symptoms.[ii]
Cannabis Relieves Autism Symptoms In Children
After reviewing all of the clinical data regarding the effects of cannabis on children with ASD, the researchers noted that the evidence clearly shows a positive change in the core symptom of social communication. In one study, autistic children that received treatment displayed a 30 percent improvement in social communication[iii], while another study noted a 47 percent improvement[iv].
While the mechanism underlying this effect is not clear, it probably has something to do with the fact that the left hemisphere cortical regions – which are strongly associated with verbal language functions – have a particularly high concentration of cannabinoid receptors. As such, it seems likely that cannabinoids regulate the function of key brain areas that are involved in communication.
A number of noncore ASD symptoms also appear to be helped greatly by cannabis. For instance, one study found that six months after treatment with cannabis, 89.8 percent of children with autism displayed a notable reduction in restlessness, with 89 percent experiencing less rage attacks and 83.8 percent exhibiting less agitation.
Children with ASD also experience high rates of comorbid conditions such as ADHD, anxiety and sleep disturbances, all of which appear to be helped by cannabis. For instance, one study found that autistic children who received cannabis displayed a 70 percent reduction in anxiety symptoms[v], while another noted a 71.4 percent improvement in sleep quality[vi].
Meanwhile, 64.8 percent of children with autism experienced a reduction in ADHD after receiving cannabis treatment.
Summing up the data, the study author writes that “these positive outcomes warrant the use of cannabis as an adjunct treatment in children and provide the impetus for further research studies with large randomized controlled trials to provide higher evidence literature to support the treatment of ASD symptoms with cannabis.”
[i] Xiong, M. (2021). Cannabis treatment of Autism in children: A literature reivew [Master’s alternative plan paper, Minnesota State University, Mankato]. Cornerstone: A Collection of Scholarly and Creative Works for Minnesota State University, Mankato. – https://cornerstone.lib.mnsu.edu/etds/1108/
[ii] Zamberletti, E., Gabaglio, M., & Parolaro, D. (2017). The endocannabinoid system and autism spectrum disorders: Insights from animal models. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 18(9), 1916–. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms18091916
[iii] Bar-Lev Schleider, L., Mechoulam, R., Saban, N., Meiri, G., & Novack, V. (2019). Real life experience of medical cannabis treatment in autism: Analysis of safety and efficacy. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 200. – http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.mnsu.edu/10.1038/s41598-018-37570-y
[iv] Aran, A., Cassuto, H., Lubotzky, A., Wattad, N., & Hazan, E. (2019). Brief report: Cannabidiol-rich cannabis in children with autism spectrum disorder and severe behavioral problems—A retrospective feasibility study. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 49(3), 1284–1288. – https://doi-org.ezproxy.mnsu.edu/10.1007/s10803-018-3808-2
[v] Ponton, J. A., Smyth, K., Soumbasis, E., Llanos, S. A., Lewis, M., Meerholz, W. A., & Tanguay, R. L. (2020). A pediatric patient with autism spectrum disorder and epilepsy using cannabinoid extracts as complementary therapy: a case report. Journal of Medical Case Reports, 14(1), N.PAG. https://doi-org.ezproxy.mnsu.edu/10.1186/s13256-020-02478-7
[vi] Barchel, D., Stolar, O., De-Haan, T., Ziv-Baran, T., Saban, N., Fuchs, D. O., Koren, G., & Berkovitch, M. (2019). Oral cannabidiol use in children with autism spectrum disorder to treat related symptoms and comorbidities. Frontiers in pharmacology, 9, 1521. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2018.01521