Is medical marijuana effective for autism?

Parents of children with autism claim cannabis can improve their ability to communicate and complete tasks independently.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition affecting 1 in 59 children in the United States. [1] A person with ASD has significant social communication issues, which are often accompanied by patterns of repetitive behavior and restricted interests or activities.

Early intervention with behavioral, sensory, occupational, and speech therapies can improve symptoms and facilitate the development of communication and language skills. However, there are no pharmacological treatments for autism.

While the cause of autism remains unknown, there is some evidence to suggests that it involves a hyperactive nervous system due to a decrease in the brain’s inhibitory tone. People with ASD are often sensitive to sensory stimuli, which can make certain sounds, tastes, or smells overwhelming, resulting in withdrawal from social situations and difficulty with speech. Based on these findings, cannabidiol (CBD), a component of cannabis that is shown to inhibit neural activity, may reduce the severity of symptoms by dampening sensory input.

Some parents of children with severe autism have reported positive results with medical marijuana, claiming the drug has a profound calming effect on their child. [2] In light of these promising reports, neuroscientists are now investigating the potential of medicinal marijuana for autism, a breakthrough that would provide relief for millions of children afflicted by this lifelong condition.

Scientific Research to Support Medical Marijuana for Autism

Most medical research concerning marijuana and autism is limited to anecdotal reports and observational studies. However, with the recent legalization of marijuana in many countries, clinical trials are beginning to emerge.

Researchers from Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, where cannabis research has recently been approved, have presented preliminary findings to support the use of medical marijuana for children with autism. Published in the 2018 edition of Neurology, the study observed sixty autistic children, aged 5 to 17 years old, who were treated with oral cannabis containing both cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at a ratio of 20:1. [3]

According to the results, behavior outbreaks were significantly improved in 61% of patients, while communication difficulties also improved in 86% of patients. The report also outlined that adverse events were low with sleep disturbances occurring in 14% of patients, irritability in 9% and loss of appetite in 9%.

This preliminary study supports the feasibility of CBD based medical cannabis as a promising treatment option for refractory behavioral problems in children with ASD.

ADI ARAN- Pediatric Neurologist

The chief investigator and Pediatric Neurologist Adi Aran said, “This preliminary study supports the feasibility of CBD based medical cannabis as a promising treatment option for refractory behavioral problems in children with ASD.”

Due to these encouraging results, researchers at Shaare Zedek Medical Center have launched a large, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, which is currently underway with 120 participants.

In 2019, the findings of another retrospective study out of Israel were published in Scientific Reports. [4] This time, researchers analyzed the safety and efficacy of marijuana in 188 ASD patients aged between 11 and 18. Treatment consisted of three daily doses of cannabis oil containing 30% cannabidiol (CBD) and 1.5% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

After six months of treatment, 30% reported significant improvements, 54% moderate improvement, 6% slight improvement and 9% had no change in their condition. In particular, 11 of the 13 ASD patients with seizures reported a complete disappearance of symptoms, while the remaining two patients reported improvement.

Furthermore, restlessness and rage attacks were reduced in 90% of patients, and the quality of life more than doubled in 67% of patients. However, 23 patients in the study reported adverse side effects such as sleepiness, restlessness, psychoactive effect, increased appetite, and dry mouth.

Nonetheless, with more than 80% of the parents reporting a significant to moderate improvement in their child’s global condition, the researchers concluded: “Cannabis as a treatment in ASD patients appears to be well-tolerated, safe and seemingly effective option to relieve symptoms, mainly: seizures, tics, depression, restlessness and rage attacks.”

Cannabis as a treatment in ASD patients appears to be well-tolerated, safe and seemingly effective option to relieve symptoms, mainly: seizures, tics, depression, restlessness and rage attacks.

Real life Experience of Medical Cannabis Treatment in Autism: Analysis of Safety and Efficacy

The present findings hold promise for many families affected by ASD. However, the senior investigator advised that the results should be interpreted with caution as this was an observational study with no control group (one of the lowest classes of medical evidence). Therefore, researchers cannot be certain that a causal relationship exists between cannabis and improved symptoms in autism.

Anecdotal Reports Medical Marijuana for Children with Autism

Many parents and carers of children with ASD are interested in the medicinal capabilities of medical marijuana, especially after hearing the experiences of other parents. One report by Marie Myung-Ok Lee, who teaches at Brown University, has gained significant media attention. [5] She is the author of the award-winning novel Somebody’s Daughter, in which she documents her autistic son’s experience on Marinol, a synthetic form of THC.

“After a week on Marinol, which contains a synthetic cannabinoid, J began garnering a few glowing school reports. But J tends to build a tolerance to synthetics, and in a few months, we could see the aggressive behavior coming back. One night, at a medical marijuana patient advocacy group, I learned that the one cannabinoid in Marinol cannot compare to the 60 in marijuana the plant.”

Marie decided to try marijuana-infused cookies and tea, which contained the full spectrum of cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. When she was asked how her son is doing now, she responded:

“I don’t consider marijuana a miracle cure for autism. But I do consider it a wonderful, safe botanical that allows J to participate more fully in life without the dangers and sometimes permanent side effects of pharmaceutical drugs, now that we have a good dose and a good strain. Free from pain, J can go to school and learn. And his violent behavior won’t put him in the local children’s psychiatric hospital—a scenario all too common among his peers.”

Overview: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a lifelong developmental disability characterized by significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. People with ASD may interact, behave, and learn in ways that seem different from other people.

Autism is considered a “spectrum” disorder as each person is affected to a different degree, ranging from mild to severe. Some people with ASD are highly intelligent, while others have difficulty learning and need a lot of help with their daily lives.

Signs and Symptoms:

People with ASD often have trouble with speech and non-verbal communication, engage in repetitive patterns of behavior, and have restricted interests and activities. Many people with ASD also have sensory sensitivities, such as unusual reactions to sound, taste, touch, smell, or temperature.

Signs of ASD begin in early childhood and typically last throughout a person’s lifespan.

Children and adults with ASD might:

  • avoid eye contact and reject physical contact
  • not look at objects when people point at them
  • appear to be unaware when people speak to them, but respond to other sounds
  • have little interest in other people and would prefer to be alone
  • not show affection to their parents or primary caregivers
  • not use verbal language, facial expressions or gestures, such as waving or pointing
  • repeat and echo words or phrases without understanding the meaning
  • remain focused on one thing for an extended period of time (even hours)
  • repeat behaviors over and over again
  • have little interest in “make-believe” play (for example, pretending to “talk” on toy phone)
  • have difficulty dealing with changes in daily routine

Children, adolescents, and adults with autism often suffer from great frustration as they cannot express their emotions. Although they may want to convey their feelings, they don’t have the language skills to do so. In severe cases, frustration can lead to aggressive behavior and self-harm, such as repeatedly biting themselves or banging their head.

People with autism also experience several co-morbidities, such as epilepsy, attention deficit disorder, and sleep disorders. At least 20% experience epileptic seizures.

Diagnosis of Autism

Diagnosing ASD can be challenging as there is no medical test available to diagnose the disorder. Instead, health professionals use screening tools to examine a child’s development and behavior. Diagnosis is possible in children two years or younger. However, many children do not receive a final diagnosis until they are older, which can delay much needed early intervention.

Treatments for Autism

Depending on the severity, caring for a person with autism can be a lifelong commitment for parents and carers. However, with the right treatment plan, social skills can be learned, and certain symptoms improved. Since every person with autism has a unique set of challenges and strengths, each autism intervention and treatment approach must be tailored to the individual’s specific needs, and the best results are achieved with early intervention.

Treatment options encompass educational programs, behavioral therapies, physical therapies, and pharmacological medications.

  • Speech pathologists can help develop speaking, listening, understanding, reading, writing, and social skills.
  • Occupational therapists can help with adaptive strategies, such as coping with transitions, as well as motor skills, like posture, balance, and manipulation of small objects.
  • Antipsychotic drugs and mood stabilizers may help prevent patients from repeatedly injuring themselves.
  • Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors can provide some relief, but little is known about the long-term effects these drugs on autistic children.

An ideal treatment program will combine a variety of strategies to help the individual respond better to his or her environment.

Trying Cannabis Treatment for Autism

Parents and carers of children with ASD have experienced positive results with the use of medical marijuana. If you are interested in inquiring about medical marijuana for the treatment of autism, you should first investigate the laws surround cannabis and autism in your state.

If you’re located in Florida, book medical evaluation with a THC Physicians today. It’s the first step towards getting a Florida Medical Marijuana Card.



Howard Seth Meiselman, DO

Medically reviewed by Howard Seth Meiselman, DO — Written by Mark Conklin: Editorial Process