Updated on January 21, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
When conventional medication and therapy don’t help reduce symptoms of a child’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD), parents can feel desperate for alternative solutions. Enter medical marijuana, which is becoming an increasingly popular option in the autism treatment toolbox.
Autism, a developmental disorder that primarily involves repetitive behavior and deficits in communication and social skills, is now a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in 12 states and one US territory: Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah and Puerto Rico.
Additional states, including California, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon and Massachusetts, as well as Washington DC, allow doctors the discretion to recommend medical cannabis for debilitating conditions, which can include autism, according to Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism.
Legal use is ahead of the science, although studies continue to roll in. One preliminary Israeli study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders involving 150 children found that symptoms improved in those treated with medical marijuana extracts or a combination of cannabidiol (CBD) and THC. Compared to children receiving placebo, study subjects were less disruptive and more socially responsive. However, the children receiving marijuana were also more likely to have a decreased appetite and sleepiness and disturbed sleep.
Another study, in Autism Open Access, which reported the results of a national online survey of over 100 individuals with ASD, found that THC/CBD and CBD products may have a wide range of benefits for people with ASD. The researchers on both studies and the American Academy of Pediatrics all urge further study on the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana in ASD.
If medical marijuana is legal in your state for autism, either directly or as a debilitating condition, talk to your child’s pediatrician about the risks and benefits. Keep in mind that there are two major types of marijuana: indica, which is a type of cannabis with fat leaves, short flowering cycles and physically sedating effects. Sativa, on the other hand, is a leggy plant with pointed leaves that tends to produce energizing effects. Most strains are hybrids of indica and sativa, with one strain being more or less dominant than the other.
Best Strains for Autism Symptoms
Choosing the best strain of medical cannabis for your child’s ASD symptoms can often be a matter of trial and error. If you’re considering medical marijuana for your child’s autism, here are strains favored by parents to weave into the discussion with your child’s pediatrician and inquire about when you visit your medical marijuana dispensary.
Avidekel: This indica-dominant hybrid contains an average of 18% CBD and almost no THC. It holds the promise of relieving ASD symptoms, such as restlessness, rage attacks and agitation, with minimal psychoactive effect.
Bruce Banner: Known for its relaxing effects, this sativa-dominant strain contains an average of 19% to 25% THC, with less than 1% CBD.
Bubba Kush: This indica strain has an average of 14%-19% THC with less than 1% CBD. It’s known for its tranquilizing effects.
Charlotte’s Web: This hemp-derived oil offers 11% to 13% CBD with less than 1% THC. Some parents consider it the gold standard for treating autism symptoms.
Durban Poison: This sativa-dominant strain, with an average of 14% to 19% THC and less than 1% CBD, is known for its energizing and uplifting effects, which may help some children feel calmer.
Grape Ape: This indica dominant strain offers 18% to 21% THC with minimal CBD.
Headband: This hybrid strain, which contains 60% indica and 40% sativa, helps adults without autism to relax and combat stress.
LA Confidential: This indica-dominant strain, which contains an average of 15% to 19% THC and less than 1% CBD, is known for its calming effect.
Skywalker OG: This indica-dominant strain offers levels of THC generally ranging from 20% to 25%.
White Russian: A hybrid of AK-47 and White Widow, this indica-dominant strain offers 13% to 18% THC with less than 1% CBD. Known for its energizing effects, it may conversely help some children with ASD to relax.
If you opt to try a strain of medical marijuana that has a higher percentage of THC, watch for side effects, such as increased anxiety, psychotic thinking or vomiting.
The form of medical marijuana you choose is also important. In a position statement, the Autism Science Foundation notes that children shouldn’t smoke medical marijuana because smoking is linked to lung cancer. Sublingual drops (marijuana extract mixed with olive oil) or edibles are safer options for children. Still, they caution: “Parents and autistic adults should carefully consider the costs, risks and benefits of a drug that has not been proven effective or safe.”
About The Author
Sandra Gordon is a writer specializing in health and medicine for consumers and physicians. She has written for Everyday Health, Prevention, Healthgrades, Parents, the Cleveland Clinic, NYU Langone Health, Harvard Medical School, Your Teen, WebMD and many more.