Over the past decade, autistic people and their families have increasingly experimented with medical marijuana and other products derived from it. Many have seen that these compounds can alleviate a range of autism-related traits and issues. While scientists are still in the early stages of rigorous research into marijuana’s safety and effectiveness, there is evidence showing that medical marijuana might be a treatment option for those suffering from autism spectrum disorder.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. [1] Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is known as a “developmental disorder” because the symptoms typically appear within the first two years of a child’s life. ASD occurs in all ethnic, racial, and economic groups. 

Physically, there is nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people; however, people with ASD might communicate, behave, learn, and interact differently than most other people. The learning and problem-solving abilities can range from gifted to severely challenged for those with ASD. Depending on the severity of the condition, some people with ASD might need a lot of assistance in their daily life while others do not need any.

Autism is referred to as a “spectrum” disorder because there is large variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. [1] These conditions are now all known as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What Causes Autism?

There is no single known cause for Autism. Given the complexity of the disorder, there are probably many causes, especially since there is such a large range of symptoms. Both genetics and the environment might play a role in causing Autism spectrum disorder.

  • Genetics: A lot of different genes are involved in autism spectrum disorder. For some, ASD can be associated with a genetic disorder, such as fragile X syndrome or Rett syndrome. For others, genetic changes or mutations may increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder. Still, other genes may affect brain development and the way that brain cells communicate, or they may control the severity of symptoms. Some of these genetic mutations seem to be inherited, while others occur out of nowhere.
  • Environmental factors: While it has not been confirmed yet, there is a possibility that one’s environment can cause issues during fetal development. Researchers are currently studying whether factors such as medications, viral infections, or air pollutants play a role in causing autism spectrum disorder.

Symptoms of ASD

Unlike Down Syndrome, ASD does not cause any type of physical differences so it can be harder to notice signs of Autism early on. Some children show signs of ASD in early infancy, like lack of response to their name, reduced eye contact, or indifference to their caregivers. Others may develop normally for the first few months or years of life, but then suddenly become aggressive or lose language skills they have already learned. Signs are typically shown by the age of 2 years and the severity of them can be from low functioning to high functioning.

Some people with autism spectrum disorder will have difficulty learning, and some have signs of lower than normal intelligence. On the other hand, some with the disorder have normal to high intelligence and they learn quickly, yet have trouble communicating and adjusting to social situations.

Due to the variety of symptoms in each child, severity can sometimes be difficult to determine. It’s generally based on the level of impairments and how they impact the ability to function. Besides the social and developmental challenges people with ASD might face, they can also have physical habits or patterns of behavior that can cause them, or others, harm. The following are patterns of behavior that might indicate your child has autism: [2] 

  • Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning, or hand flapping
  • Performs activities that could cause self-harm, such as biting or head-banging
  • Develops specific routines or rituals and becomes disturbed at the slightest change
  • Has problems with coordination or has odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness or walking on toes, and has odd, stiff, or exaggerated body language
  • Is unusually sensitive to light, sound, or touch, yet may be indifferent to pain or temperature
  • Fixates on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus
  • Has specific food preferences, such as eating only a few foods, or refusing foods with a certain texture

As they get older and mature, some children with ASD become more engaged with others and show fewer disturbances in behavior. Those with the least severe problems might eventually live normal or near-normal lives. Others, however, can continue to have trouble with language or social skills, and by their teen years can bring worse emotional and behavioral problems.

Traditional Treatments for ASD

It is suggested that treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder should start as soon as possible after the initial diagnosis. Early treatment for ASD is important, as proper care can reduce an individual’s difficulties while helping them learn new skills.

Since there is such a wide range of issues that people with ASD face, there is no single best treatment for managing the symptoms. The following are the most common treatments for ASD from a traditional doctor:

  • Medication: A doctor may use medication to treat some symptoms that are common with ASD. With medication, a person with ASD may be able to manage irritability, aggression, hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, and lashing out.
  • Behavioral, psychological, and educational therapy: People with ASD may be referred to doctors who specialize in providing behavioral, psychological, educational, or skill-building interventions. These programs may help people with ASD learn the life-skills necessary to live independently, build upon their strengths, learn social and communication skills, and reduce challenging behaviors.

ASD and Medical Marijuana

More and more anecdotal evidence is suggesting that taking cannabis for autism is an effective route of treatment. While Autism is not a Florida-approved qualifying condition for a medical marijuana recommendation if your child suffers from anxiety or violent outbreaks they might be eligible for a medical marijuana card.

One of the first reports on the potential efficacy of medical marijuana for the treatment of autism spectrum disorder comes from a case study published by the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Researchers administered Dronabinol, a cannabis-based medication, to autism patients. A six-month follow-up revealed there was a “significant” improvement in symptoms such as hyperactivity, lethargy, irritability, stereotypy and inappropriate speech. [3] 

Researchers also reported on the use of Dronabinol to treat 10 adolescent patients with intellectual disabilities, which resulted in 8 patients showing improvement in the management of treatment-resistant self-injurious behavior.

In addition to medical cannabis, over-the-counter CBD products, like Doc-CBD, can also be helpful for children with autism. Groups such as Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism have shared testimonies from families describing how medical marijuana mitigated or alleviated symptoms of spasticity, reduced the frequency of inappropriate behavioral episodes and improved sleep patterns. These same groups make the argument that medical marijuana could be an alternative to pharmaceutical therapies like Ritalin and Adderall.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Giovanni Martinez is researching treating children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) with CBD (cannabidiol) oil. In one case, a child who received a twice-daily dose of hemp oil spoke his first words after treatment, and in only three weeks, he developed sign language skills. The same child was once so frustrated about being unable to communicate that he would self-injure but on a CBD regimen can express himself and is happily enjoying life.

Medical marijuana has been known to be an alternative solution to alleviating outbursts of rage, seizures and temper tantrums among autism patients. Cannabis-based products can be responsible for the lessening of erratic actions that may have occurred in the past. Patients who use CBD and medical marijuana to treat their symptoms become more relaxed and very attentive to what they are doing. Basically, medical marijuana can serve as an exceptional behavioral modification, which can protect both the health and safety of an autistic patient.

Qualifying for a Florida Medical Marijuana Card

The Florida Medical Marijuana Program is easy to become a part of as long as you meet the list of requirements set forth by the state. While Autism is not on the approved list of conditions, if your child suffers from violent outbreaks or anxiety as a result of their ASD, they might be eligible for a medical marijuana card in Florida. The following are the medical conditions that have been approved for a medical cannabis recommendation: [5]

  • Cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Glaucoma
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Medical conditions of the same kind or class as or comparable to the others listed.
  • A terminal condition diagnosed by a physician other than the qualified physician issuing the physician certification.
  • Chronic nonmalignant pain caused by a qualifying medical condition or that originates from a qualifying medical condition and persists beyond the usual course of that qualifying medical condition.

If you suffer from one of the conditions listed above, you might qualify for a medical marijuana recommendation in Florida. In addition to a diagnosis, a qualified patient must also:

  • Be a permanent or seasonal Florida resident
  • Be diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition by a qualified physician
  • Be entered into the Medical Marijuana Use Registry
  • Obtain a Medical Marijuana Use Registry Identification Card

If you believe your child, yourself, or another loved one might benefit from medical marijuana, take this quick survey to get started. Our team of passionate Florida Medical Marijuana Physicians are ready to help you along your journey!

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

[2] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml

[3]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247587977_An_Open_Label_Study_of_the_Use_of_Dronabinol_Marinol_in_the_Management_of_Treatment-Resistant_Self-Injurious_Behavior_in_10_Retarded_Adolescent_Patients

[4]https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352928

[5] https://knowthefactsmmj.com/patients/