Autism and Cannabis

Treating autistic-related disabilities with cannabis.


In 2017, the parents of a 15-year-old autistic child walked into the offices of Caleo Health in Alberta, Canada to inquire about new therapies to treat their son’s seizures. In addition to his seizures, their son also struggled with communicating with other children and adults. His ability to keep and maintain close friendships was highly stunted. And at points, he would withdraw from conversation altogether — a condition known as selective mutism. Compounding his difficulties were the side effects of his anti-seizure medications. Clobazam gave him suicidal ideations; valproic acid made him gain weight and made his hair fall out. He attended psychotherapy sessions for his selective mutism and anxiety, but the parents, like many caring for an autistic child, were looking for alternative treatments.

In this case, they chose medical cannabis, specifically a cannabis-based extract with a 20:1 CBD/THC ratio. After six months, they began to notice surprising changes in his behavior: “He became more motivated and energetic, starting his own vegetarian diet and exercise programs,” a scientific paper tracking his development declared. “He was able to start his first part-time job helping customers and interacting with them... His mother stated he now also has a girlfriend.”

While clinical researchers caution against drawing conclusions on individual case studies, stories like this have spread through the autistic community and have given additional hope to those treating autism’s debilitating comorbidities. Currently, the FDA has approved of only two drugs – Risperdal and Abilify — to treat behavioral issues associated with autism. With cannabis recommended in various states for a host of conditions, from gastrointestinal disorders to sleep issues to epilepsy, commonly associated with autism, the studies examining its efficacy are just beginning to emerge.

But what is the connection between cannabis and autism? One study which looked at 93 autistic children found lower levels of certain endocannabinoids among them. As most who study endocannabinoids know, these molecules help regulate important biological functions such as mood, sleep and behavior. Specific endocannabinoid deficits may account for bouts of aggression some autistic children display. This was apparently the case with the boy experiencing seizures that walked into Caleo Health. Researchers such as Eric Hollander of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine cite the brain’s excitation/inhibitory balance as one area worthy of examination. Simply put, activity within the brain can be calmed or excited; when the brain’s neurons are too excited, seizures, hyperactivity or disruptive behavior can occur. “Cannabinoid compounds, including CBD and CBDV, a compound we’ve been studying carefully, seem to increase inhibition and decrease excitation, so they restore E/I balance,” he recently said to Spectrum.

While it’s still unclear just how cannabis provides its reputed benefits to the autistic, the last few years have brought forth some promising data: one 2019 study in Brazil showed improved symptoms in 14 out of 15 adolescents who took a plant-derived CBD extract. This year, a randomized, placebo-controlled trial tested two cannabis extracts on 150 young people and found improvements in social responsiveness and a decrease in disruptive behavior. Researchers have also been exploring the minor cannabinoid CBDV; one recent study found that this molecule stimulated changes in the brain that nudged its functional connectivity closer to that of neurotypicals.

Some doctors worry about introducing THC to children and thereby altering their mental development. For that reason, most of the studies have focused on CBD/CBDV-heavy extracts. However, the movement to explicitly include autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) as a qualifying condition for cannabis treatment has taken off. Five years ago, only Pennsylvania allowed it. As of 2021, Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah now allow for it.

In the meantime, parents continue to share stories and make headlines with their attempts to publicize their experiences with it. In March, Tiffany Carwile advocated on behalf of her seven-year-old son to put ASD as a qualifying condition for Ohio’s medical cannabis program. In Minnesota, Mario Cortolezzis has built up a following of 123,000 viewers on TikTok documenting his autistic son and their experience with medical cannabis. And clinical trials continue apace. This exchange of information on both the grassroots and clinical level has helped provide people in the autistic community the vital information they need to manage a condition one out of 54 people in America are now diagnosed with. As even formerly marijuana-averse parents have discovered, one can’t afford to let stigma stand in the way of potential healing.

Team Hytiva will be building and auctioning off a 2021 Ford Bronco with proceeds going to The Grant a Gift Autism Foundation. You can stay up to date on the build, news and more here: Ford Bronco Charity Build for Autism

To learn more about the studies discussed in this article: