News

The case for children taking cannabis for autism

Perpetually stacking things or lining them up is one hallmark of autism. Photo: Andwhatsnext
Perpetually stacking things or lining them up is one hallmark of autism. Photo: Andwhatsnext

Autism spectrum disorder makes communication difficult. It usually begins before a child is three years old but can come as early as 18 months of age or, as is often the case, as late as adulthood, and boys are twice as likely to be hit by it as girls. Children who have (milder) high-functioning autism will not be interested in making friends, have difficulty feeling empathy, feel uncomfortable when touched and experience difficulty making eye contact or interpreting social cues. Children with low-functioning autism undertake repetitive, sometimes harmful behaviours, such as rocking or head-banging, and are extremely sensitive to sound and light. They fly into rages. They can’t sleep and might not learn to speak. Intellectual disabilities are found in one third of cases of autism.

Around one percent of children are struck by the condition, with more in developed countries. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 children in the country is affected; this is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders, with diagnoses increasing tenfold in the last four decades. There is no cure, although a teeny fraction of affected children outgrow it, and treatment is through drugs for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, anxiety or depression. It’s possible for children to take a dozen different drugs. These drugs have side effects, like diabetes (you’ll want cannabis for that), gynecomastia (breast development in males), heart problems, movement disorders and severe weight gain. If the condition is severe, drugs are useful for only a few hours. Social-skills training and parent-led therapy sessions supervised by a trained person are helpful. In older children, therapy to promote daily living, social-skills and communication can be undertaken. Other disorders can be detected by a blood test, but for autism, a child’s behaviour and development must be observed.

What causes it?

It is believed that autism is the result of genetic predisposition and environmental factors. Risk factors for autism include the age of the parents at the time of conception, maternal illness during pregnancy and difficulties during pregnancy, like oxygen deprivation to a baby’s brain. There is evidence that the chances of a child being autistic are reduced by the mother adhering to a diet with folic-rich foods and prenatal vitamins both prior to and post-conception.

What can you do about it?

There is no end of anecdotes and some studies that have suggested cannabis as a treatment for autism. Parents can be very receptive to the idea if everything else has failed. Bernard Rimland, who founded the Autism Society of America and was once a director of the Autism Research Institute, believes the risks of cannabis are “fairly benign” compared to the available drugs. Rimland confirmed that parents have reported that cannabis worked when all other options, be they drugs or not, have come up short.

How cannabis helps

The main ingredients of cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is psychoactive, and cannabidiol (CBD), which is anti-psychotic. THC binds to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, provoking a high, while CBD affects other receptors.

If you don’t fancy smoking it, cannabis can be taken for autism by vaping or using sprays, tinctures and edibles. THC can help with hyperactivity, inappropriate speech, irritability and lethargy. CBD alters neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, improves brain connectivity and reduces brain inflammation. It relieves anxiety, depression and psychosis. What research exists is almost all pre-clinical, using animals, such as mice and rats. The way forward is so very clear.

Header Image via High Times