CBD Oil as a Treatment for Autism
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.
Verywell Health articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and healthcare professionals. These medical reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.
Arno Kroner, DAOM, LAc, is a board-certified acupuncturist, as well as an herbalist and integrative medicine doctor. He operates a private practice in Santa Monica, California.
Cannabidiol , sometimes called CBD, is a chemical compound found in the cannabis plant. Since it does not include THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, CBD does not induce a “high.” It can, however, help to reduce anxiety and lower stress levels—symptoms that are common among people with autism.
Currently, there is some evidence that CBD can help to alleviate specific symptoms and improve behavior in children and adults on the autism spectrum, but research into the safety and efficacy of CBD is in its earliest stages.
CBD can be derived from hemp or cannabis (the marijuana plant) and is now legal in many states in the United States and in many countries around the world. It can be purchased without a prescription as an oil, tincture, pill, or chewable pill online and is also an ingredient in edibles ranging from coffee to pastries. It comes in many dosages and at many price points.
Claims for CBD range from the realistic to the absurd. Some websites and companies claim, for example, that CBD can cure cancer (it can’t). On the other hand, CBD does seem to alleviate some untractable symptoms of disorders such as epilepsy, sleeplessness, and anxiety—all common issues for people with autism. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “the strongest scientific evidence is for its effectiveness in treating some of the cruelest childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), which typically don’t respond to antiseizure medications.”
In numerous studies, CBD was able to reduce the number of seizures, and in some cases, it was able to stop them altogether. Recently, the FDA approved the first-ever cannabis-derived medicine for these conditions, Epidiolex, which contains CBD. CBD is commonly used to address anxiety, and for patients who suffer through the misery of insomnia, studies suggest that CBD may help with both falling asleep and staying asleep.”
CBD is not helpful for everyone who uses it, and, in rare cases, it can cause side effects such as sleepiness or nausea.
How CBD May Help People With Autism
Neither CBD nor any other drug can remove or cure core symptoms of autism, which include social communication challenges, sensory dysfunction, and restricted, repetitive behaviors. CBD can, however, help to alleviate disorders often associated with autism such as epilepsy, anxiety, sleeplessness, and stress.
By relieving the associated disorders, CBD may help reduce some of the most problematic aspects of autism.
For example, it may cause better sleep and lower anxiety (which can reduce aggressive behaviors), fewer seizures (which can lessen stress and make it easier to interact socially), and lower anxiety to make it easier to learn and use social communication skills.
It’s also important to note that sleeplessness and aggression are particularly difficult symptoms for parents, who can quickly find themselves exhausted and overwhelmed. Aggression, in particular, is one of the most challenging behaviors common to autism—oftentimes, this is a reason a parent may place their child with autism in an institutional setting.
A few full-scale studies have explored the impact of CBD on children with autism—none, however, have explored its impact on adults on the spectrum. One of the largest such studies took place in Israel. The report includes the following finding:
“In 2014, The Ministry of Health began providing licenses for the treatment of children with epilepsy. After seeing the results of cannabis treatment on symptoms like anxiety, aggression, panic, tantrums and self-injurious behavior, in children with epilepsy, parents of severely autistic children turned to medical cannabis for relief.”
The results of the study were encouraging. Most of the children involved saw improvement in anxiety, anger, and hyperactivity.
In addition (and perhaps as a result), they also saw significant improvements in social communication, sleep, and self-injury (a small percentage, however, worsened with treatment). A tremendous bonus is the fact that there were few side effects, and those that did appear (sleepiness and change in appetite) were mild.
Additional studies have provided similar results: CBD has proved to be helpful in a majority of cases in lessening emotional and behavioral issues and can even help to improve social communication skills. These preliminary findings, along with the low incidence of significant side effects, are very encouraging. Studies are ongoing in clinics and research centers around the world.
Before Trying CBD
Given all of the positive findings for CBD and the low risk associated with it, it may make sense to try using it with your child with autism (or trying it yourself if you are an adult with autism). Before buying a bottle of CBD oil, however, it’s important to follow these steps:
- Check with your child’s (or your) doctor to be sure that no allergies or sensitivities exist that could cause a reaction to CBD.
- Check to be sure that CBD is legal in your state, province, or country.
- Research sources of CBD to be sure the brand you’re using is well-regarded and properly licensed.
- Take careful notes to be sure you have baseline information about your child’s (or your own) behaviors and symptoms so that you can make a useful comparison before and after using CBD.
CBD comes in many forms and at many dosage levels. Oils taste somewhat bitter, which is why many people prefer chewable candy-like options; of course, it’s important to keep candy-like drugs and supplements out of the reach of children.
In general, it’s best to start with a lower dosage. In fact, studies of CBD for other disorders such as migraine suggest that a lower dose may be more effective.
Lower doses are also more easily tolerated than a higher dose.
When you start using any new supplement, drug, or treatment, it’s important to be sure your child’s doctor is aware of the new treatment and has no concerns about it relative to your child’s health as well as let everyone working with your child know that you’ve started something new and ask them to look for and report any changes in behaviors or skills.
Take careful notes of any changes you see yourself so you can easily review your records to determine how helpful the new treatment really is and keep an eye open for any troubling side effects. Be sure to communicate any side effects to a doctor or healthcare professional immediately.
A Word From Verywell
Children with autism grow and learn every day, simply because they are maturing. As a result, there is no simple way to determine whether a change in behavior or an increase in skills is due to a particular treatment or to ordinary maturation. This reality makes it very easy to see a change in behaviors and inaccurately attribute them to the newest treatment you’ve tried. By far, the best way to know whether a particular treatment is truly effective is to be rigorous about evaluating your child before and after its use.
To do this, you’ll need to create or find and use a numerical scale (1 to 5 for instance) to measure your child’s behavior. For example, is today’s angry outburst at a level 1 or a level 5? By carefully evaluating the impact of a new therapy, you can eliminate the likelihood that you’ll make decisions based on wishful thinking rather than on solid evidence.
CBD Oil and Autism: What Parents Need to Know
CBD oil is becoming an increasingly popular treatment option for a variety of health conditions – including autism. But is CBD oil a safe autism treatment for kids?
Autism is a neurological disorder impacting social skills and development. It affects one in 40 American children today, according to a December 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many children with autism have difficulty interacting with others, and some display unusual patterns of behavior like ritualistic motions. Individual cases of autism fall on a spectrum ranging from mild to severe.
Doctors don’t know the cause of autism, but environmental and genetic factors may play a role. There’s also no cure for autism; however, a variety of interventions (like occupational and speech therapies) can lessen the severity of symptoms. One of the newest and most controversial treatment options is cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a natural substance extracted from cannabis.
- RELATED:Is CBD Oil Safe for Kids?
CBD oil is made without large amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chemical that’s responsible for the psychedelic effects of marijuana – so it can’t technically get you “high.” It has become widely available in health food stores and medical marijuana dispensaries across the country – usually in liquid, cream, or gel capsule form.
In preliminary studies, CBD oil has been shown to improve a variety of physical and mental health conditions like chronic pain, anxiety, ADHD, gastrointestinal illness, insomnia, cancer, and more. And in an April 2018 study of 60 children published in Neurology, a group of Israeli researchers found that CBD oil reduced autism-induced behavioral, communication, and anxiety problems.
Parents across the country have hopped on these findings and starting giving CBD oil to their children. Many claim CDB oil helps regulate emotions, promote better sleep, and control autism symptoms.
As with every new medical breakthrough, though, CBD oil isn’t without drawbacks. According to Mandi Silverman, PsyD, MBA, senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute, there’s a lack of information about using CBD for behavioral disorders, especially in young children. That’s why Silverman and many other health professionals suggest parents learn the facts before stocking up on CBD oil.
- RELATED:Signs of Autism in Toddlers
“As parents, we give ourselves the daunting task of fixing everything. When your child is diagnosed with a developmental disorder like autism, the desire to fix things is even more exaggerated,” she says. “Treatment for autism takes time. Parents see CBD oil as this option that can address some of the needs in a way nothing else can.”
But despite how tempting CBD oil may be as an autism treatment, Silverman says it’s “not an intervention with an evidence base.” It’s also not an FDA-approved method for treating autism.
Here are a few more issues surrounding the treatment of autism with CBD oil:
No clinical trial has analyzed the effects of treating CBD oil with autism, so doctors aren’t sure about safety. It’s also unclear exactly how CBD is absorbed into the body.
You can’t know the exact amount of CBD in your oil. The concentration of ingredients may differ in each batch, says Silverman.
CBD oil products aren’t lab tested in every state, according to the Child Mind Institute, so they could potentially contain THC or other unknown items.
CBD oil may interact with other medications.
Side effects, like drowsiness and dry mouth, may be possible.
Some parents may also wonder about the legal issues regarding CBD oil. Some states allow CBD oil as long as it’s derived from hemp, but not from marijuana. Other states outlaw CBD altogether, and some permit it for certain uses. Research your own state’s legislation for more details.
So what’s the bottom line? If you’re considering treating your child’s autism with CBD oil, thoroughly research the positives and negatives. Talk to your child’s doctor – or someone who is well-educated in using CBD oil for medical purposes. And when it comes to choosing products, try finding out how much THC it contains. It’s always best to be an informed consumer when making decisions regarding your child’s health.