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Cannabidiol-Rich Cannabis Treatment for Children with ASD

There are two main cannabinoids in the cannabis plant: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is psychoactive and the chemical responsible for the marijuana “high”, whereas CBD does not. The recreational use of cannabis is often associated with negative effects like decreased motivation, cognitive decline, and even schizophrenia. Parental use of cannabis has been tied to a 44% increase in risk of psychosis in their children, even when only one parent was a user (Davenport, 2018). However, these risks are related to the cannabinoid THC, not CBD. Instead, CBD has been shown to have effects that can help treat anxiety, chronic pain, and insomnia. There is evidence to support the therapeutic effects of CBD and there are already 42 states in the U.S. that have already legalized medical cannabis use.

Cannabis popularity is on the rise, and there is also increasing anecdotal evidence from families that vouch for the success of CBD treatment, which can be found from online advocacy groups such as Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, Pediatric Cannabis Therapy, and the Autism Support Network. Since many children with ASD suffer from disruptive behavior such as tantrums, self-injury, and violence, the difficulties can increase social isolation. Consequently, distressed parents often seek to find alternative treatments such as CBD.

With a growing interest in CBD treatment in the autism community, the study on CBD-rich medical cannabis in children with ASD done by Aran et al., “Brief Report: Cannabidiol-Rich Cannabis in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Severe Behavioral Problems—A Retrospective Feasibility Study”, have found that CBD could indeed possibly be an alternative in improving severe disruptive behavior in children with ASD. The study was done on a sample of 60 children with an average age of 12 years old, who were prescribed a cannabis oil solution to be given 2-3 times daily for four weeks. All children had ASD and severe behavioral problems.

The results have shown that CBD treatment is promising: there was considerable improvement in behavior problems reported in 61% of the children, in anxiety in 39% of the children, and in communication of problems reported in 47% of the children. The results also showed that there were some adverse events reported by parents throughout the treatment. Common side effects were restlessness, irritability, and loss of appetite which are common in regular marijuana use. However, some symptoms were usually resolved by adjusting or omitting doses. After treatment, behavioral outbreaks were much improved or very much improved in 61% of the children, with 33% receiving either fewer medications or lowered dosages, and 24% stop taking medications altogether. Only 8% of the children received more medications or increased dosages.

In conclusion, parents should still proceed with caution: there is still little known about the potential benefits of CBD in children with ASD. While there is no conclusive answer yet, the promising data and results of the study show that it is worthwhile to further explore cannabidiol-rich cannabis as a treatment for children with ASD. For now, changing cannabis from a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Schedule I substance to a Schedule II substance is highly recommended to facilitate more research studies on CBD’s potential in ASD and other medical conditions.

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 and Developmental Disorders, 49(3), 1284–1288.

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