Can Cannabis Treat Autism (ASD) Symptoms?

Increasing numbers of people are suffering from autism, a neurological developmental disorder. Those concerned experience problems with social interaction and communication. Cannabis could be an interesting treatment method. What anecdotal reports have been claiming for years, an Israeli study seems to confirm 2019. Yet many unanswered questions remain.

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are complex developmental disorders that affect the brain. There are various forms of the illness, where the person concerned demonstrates difficulties in the following areas:

  • interaction with other people (social interaction)
  • in their verbal and non-verbal communication

Repetitive and stereotypical behavioural patterns, interests and activities are also typical of the condition. Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism where cognitive development or language are in no way impaired.

Autism is much more common than many people think. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 160 children suffer from ASD, whereas other sources name significantly higher figures. However, the dramatic rise in autism diagnoses worldwide is undisputed.

People assume that both genetic and environmental factors are aiding the development of autism, but a comprehensive explanatory model is yet to be established.

Cannabis as a treatment method for autism?

ASD is incurable, yet a number of treatment options exist that improve the lives of people with autism, including cognitive, psychological and pedagogical treatments.

Those patients who are being treated with cannabis are increasingly advocating its use. A few years ago, the famous author Marie Myung-Ok Lee spoke publicly about cannabis as a medicinal option for treating her autistic son:

“Marijuana isn’t a miracle cure for autism, but in our son’s case, it eases his pain and inflammation so dramatically that he is able to participate in life and learning again. It also protects him from the sometimes dangerous side-effects of pharmaceutical drugs. We have settled on a good strain (White Russian, a favourite form of pain-relief for end-stage cancer patients) and a good dosage. And now that he is no longer in pain, J. can go to school instead of a children’s psychiatric hospital, where all too many of his peers end up as a result of their violent behaviour.”

Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Emeritus at Harvard Medical School, Dr Lester Grinspoon, published a document on the use of cannabis in autism in 2010.

In this paper, Dr Grinspoon gives further detail into the experiences of Marie Myung-Ok Lee, who administers medicinal cannabis to her son J. The professor asks scientists to take these experiences seriously and to conduct further research into medicinal treatment:

“Anecdotal evidence commands much less attention than it once did, yet it is the source of much of our knowledge of synthetic medicines as well as plant derivatives. Controlled experiments were not needed to recognise the therapeutic potential of chloral hydrate, barbiturates, aspirin, curare, insulin or penicillin.”

In addition to the report by Marie Myung-Ok Lee, there are reports of many other children in whom autism symptoms have reduced after taking medicinal cannabis. Kalel Santiago, for example, is alleged to have spoken his first words after taking CBD. Just like with epilepsy, it seems that the majority of parents administer CBD oil to their autistic children, apparently with positive results. If an activation of the cannabinoid receptors during the growth of a child is one of the causes of autistic disorders, it also needs to be considered if the administration of antagonists such as CBD could stop this effect.

In other cases reported in the media, the combination of THC and CBD proved to be more effective. Following these reports, those children suffering from both epilepsy and an autistic disorder are benefiting most from an increased THC content. There is also a case study concerning a six-year-old autistic boy whose symptoms have noticeably improved following treatment with the synthetic THC analogous compound dronabinol.

Alan Flashman, who has already treated over 500 autistic children with medicinal cannabis in Israel, comments on the optimal ratio of THC and CBD:

“The results are rather consistent. As I already reported, around 60% of children respond well to an oil with a ratio of 20:1 (CBD to THC). A further 15-20% require a higher THC content, often more THC than CBD. The last 20% continue to puzzle me somewhat; sometimes a change in cannabis variety makes a big difference. However, sometimes we have to acknowledge that the treatment has failed.”

The endocannabinoid system is fundamentally linked to autistic disorders

Over the past few years, some interesting research results concerning autistic disorders and the endocannabinoid system were published. It was also proven that the regions of the brain which have the highest concentration of CB1 receptors are those that we assume are dysfunctional in cases of autism, in particular the cerebellum, the hippocampus and the basal ganglia.

When the human foetus grows, the CB1 receptors and the associated endocannabinoids play an important role in differentiating between the neurons and the axonal migration; both processes are essential for normal neurological development. Other studies conclude that the CB1 receptors could be personally responsible for determining the synapse positioning. One theory is therefore that the activation of CB1 receptors in childhood could trigger autistic disorders because they interrupt the normal development of the brain.

The role of CB2 receptors in autistic disorders

CB2 receptors may also play a role in autistic disorders. It was proven that CB2 receptor agonists reduce the frequency with which certain important immune cells known as monocytes permeate the endothelium, i.e. the thin layer of cells separating the circulation from the tissues and organs. Monocytes are among the key cells associated with the immune system, and an interruption of their development and their functions was observed on multiple occasions in relation to the development of autistic disorders.

A study from the year 2013 showed that in children with autism, the concentration of CB2 receptors in the monocytes was increased, whereas the concentrations of CB1 receptors and the anandamide-reducing molecule Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH) were unchanged.

The potential role of the dopamine messenger system in autistic disorders

One case study reported on a middle-aged man who had previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia and who, due to psychotic symptoms, had sought acute psychiatric treatment, where he was first diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Schizophrenia and Asperger’s Syndrome have many common attributes and are therefore often confused.

Following treatment with the antipsychotic drug Aripiprazole, the Asperger’s symptoms improved considerably. Aripiprazole is a partial agonist on the dopamine D2 receptors, and authoritative evidence exists, showing that both schizophrenia and Asperger’s Syndrome are fundamentally linked to dopamine dysfunction.

It also looks as though anandamide plays a role in this process. It is already known that anandamide has a function for the dopamine messenger system, even if the precise mechanism cannot yet be properly understood. However, these studies indicate that one of the many functions of anandamide  within the central nervous system could be to modulate psychomotor and social activities, which are primarily enabled through the dopamine D2 receptor.

What role do genes play in the development of autistic disorders?

Previously, it was assumed that the number of cases of autism attributable to genetic factors is 90%. Nowadays, it is assumed that the estimate was too high, because it was based on poorly invested studies of twins, and that the actual heritability of autism is only 50%.

One form of autism, the fragile X syndrome, is the most common monogenic (i.e. can be traced back to a mutation of an individual gene or chromosome) form of hereditary autism and is caused by an inactivation of the FMR1 gene, which is responsible for producing the protein FMR. It is known that the endocannabinoid system is involved in the control of cognitive functions such as anxiety, perception of pain and susceptibility to attacks, as well as the synaptic plasticity (the ability of the synapses to strengthen or weaken themselves depending on their activity level), and that all these characteristics are impaired in the case of Fragile X syndrome.

One study which investigated the role of the endocannabinoid system in male mice with a missing FMR1 gene through breeding discovered that when the CB1 receptors are blocked, cognitive damage, perception of pain and susceptibility to attacks normalised, whereas when the CB2 receptors were blocked, anxiety normalised.

Israeli study confirms that cannabis alleviates the symptoms of autism

As we have seen above, many patients advocate the use of cannabis for treating ASD symptoms. What is important to note here, however, is that these are individual findings which were not accompanied by strict empirical tests that ascertain that no other factors are responsible for the occurred effect.

These findings are insufficient for most doctors to recommend medicinal cannabis products containing THC to children, especially when you consider that there are also concerns regarding the effects of THC on brain development. What’s more, different manifestations of autism respond very differently to the administration of THC, and further research is required in order to determine more precisely what these responses could look like.

A 2019 Israeli study raises hope. Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and the Soroka University Medical Center confirm that cannabis represents a well-tolerated, safe, and effective form of treating ASD symptoms. It is still hoped that this will pave the way for future research. Double-blind, placebo-controlled studies are now particularly urgent, as requested by Dr Victor Novack of the BGU-Soroka Clinical Cannabis Research Institute.

  • Disclaimer:
    This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with your doctor or other licensed medical professional. Do not delay seeking medical advice or disregard medical advice due to something you have read on this website.


11 thoughts on “Can Cannabis Treat Autism (ASD) Symptoms?”

  1. Current popular conventional medications that hurt autistic people:
    1. Risperdal, known to cause “male boobs” from the estrogen like effects, akathesia (where person can’t stop moving, as if their legs are on fire, weight gain, urine incontinence (you just pee everywhere after losing control of ability to hold urine, which could be a plus, I suppose if you are an autistic person struggling with urine retention…)
    2. Abilify: has caused increased seizures in persons’ with autism
    3. Haldol: has caused retrocollis, increased seizure activity, torticollis and frozen tongue in autistic people
    4. Ativan: Often has opposite effect on autistic brain chemistry, causing rebound effect or hyper excitability, worsens behaviors in autism
    5. Seroquel: Blunts choline in the autistic brain,, which is ironic, given choline is needed for memory, learning and proper brain functioning
    6. Thorazine: unless you have a rare bacteria that is killed by this drug, forget about it, it sucks. Leaves the autistic person like a zombie, shuffling feet, tongue drags, drooling
    7. Geodon: Awful drug. Lowers seizure threshold
    8. Zyprexa: should be illegal to give to autistic people with seizures. Actually causes an acute and dangerous increase in seizure activity, particularly status myoclonus
    9. Dilaudid: avoid at all costs in autism, causes psychosis and paranoia in autistic brains
    10. Ketamine: OMG do I need say more? It’s a RAVE drug for Gosh sakes…why the heck would any right minded doc prescribe that for autism?

  2. I would like to focus on the point here: “Yet, besides these and possibly other relevant cognitive enhancements, many of the reports of marijuana users explicitly stated that a high can help them to ‘slip into another person’, to feel his feelings, to see his point of view.”

    Over the last few years, I have casually smoked cannabis and I have felt this sensation of being able to slip into another person MANY times. It is a crazy experience but it is very fun. For example, when I listen to a song that I like, I can “vibe” to it. I literally feel all the influxes in the singers voice. I can feel their emotion that they are putting into the song. If its a sad song, if its an angry rap, ect. Same works for Television. I was watching an episode of “Ridiculousness” but I had my head down (just listening pretty much) and I was literally laughing with the host because I felt what was going on was funny (even though I was not watching what was going on). What is even more interesting is when I play a video game. When high, depending on the game, it feels like I slip into the character I am playing. It’s not like I feel like I am the character 100% of the time I am playing, but it comes in waves. For example if I play Mortal Combat, I will experience a wave where I am in the characters shoes and I can DESTROY. Sometimes I will get this rush where all the moves I want to do will just subconsciously happen one after another, without mistake. I am in a combo, they get a breaker, my character instantly blocks the break and reverses to continue back on the offense. Games become a crazy fun collage of virtual reality and simulated-actual reality, Movies, TV shows, and music produce an entirely different type of satisfaction (the feeling of literally transferring emotions instead of merely showing you a story). This is a very interesting topic and I think this should definitely be further researched.

  3. Backwoods Babe

    Alabama showing it’s backward thinking again….April 27, 2015: Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R- Vestavia Hills… vowed to NOT put medical marijuana bill on a special order calendar. This would mean the bill is dead.
    “It is bad legislation,” he said. “We don’t need that in Alabama.” REALLY? You don’t need medical cannabis in Alabama, even though thousands of your citizens are getting drunk everyday…and you think it’s perfectly fine to have an autistic child SCRATCH himself and toss himself through a window in ALABAMA, but that’s OK? I say this Senator is high. High on IGNORANCE.

  4. I was diagnosed with Apserger’s when I was five. My frequent temper tantrums, emotional ‘explosions’ and fierce aversion to all forms of social contact–including the normal parent-child physical contact and communication–clued in my flabbergasted parents that something wasn’t right. Ritalin and other prescription drugs did help, but only in the most rudimentary fashion. I knew their effects were superficial. I wanted to succeed, so I struggled to understand emotions and to empathize with others. I never could make eye contact, but over time, I developed the ability to read and understand others on a general level.

    The problem came in my twenties when I realized that everything I had experienced throughout childhood and school had been a lie. I never really empathized or cared about others, I just did as I was instructed to according to social laws that I had rigorously analyzed like a machine. This I only did for the purposes of cultivating a financially and academically successful persona that could earn enough money to retire early and live like a recluse, free from all human contact as had been my driving purpose in life. I experienced reality through a foggy glass. Ups and downs, everything was characterized by a distinct lack of personal meaning. None of it felt real. Emotions were calculated, not felt.

    Many years later, eventually this feeling of disconnection became overwhelming and I began to contemplate suicide. After all why continue in this colorless state? I had achieved what I needed to live like a recluse, but I remained internally empty. I wasn’t satisfied. I needed something I couldn’t explain, something I had tried to obtain numerous times but had been unable to due to unstable brain chemistry.

    And then, there was cannabis. As soon as I smoked that first pipe, something changed. I felt my mind rewiring itself. And then, for the first time in my life, I felt something tangible. It was such a revelation that I laughed hysterically for hours. But when I laughed, I understood why I was laughing. Later, overwhelmed by this positive realisation, I cried. I understood what my suffering meant, where it came from and how to resolve it in a healthy way. It was as if some suffocating emotional barrier had been dissolved and a veritable flood of all the emotions I had never felt came pouring out in waves of ecstasy. I was uplifted.

    I looked at the faces of my parents and felt that I could understand them. I realized both of them just needed a hug and had been waiting for one, desperately, from their little boy all of their lives. I had been too confused, too angry and disconnected to realise this, but at that moment, it was the clearest message I had ever received. I told them how much I loved them, we cried, we hugged, we communicated. And I FELT something. It was as if I had born again. The past became some distant nightmare. Sometimes, I find it hard to believe I even made it to thirty years in that bugged out half-conscious state. How can anyone live life without feeling? How can anyone reciprocate their parents’ love when it is drowned out by the deafening, ceaseless screeching of the autistic mind, one that plays tricks on perception, that skewers reality, disorders the muscles and sensitizes the flesh, and binds the tongue from speech?

    I’ve escaped that prison. I no longer contemplate suicide. I’m no longer isolated, nor do I desire isolation. I still need time to recharge and eye contact remains difficult without the aid of cannabis. But with it, I am a different person, the person I desire to be, one that is healthier, happier, connected to the world and to the people in it. Furthermore the effects of cannabis last long after a high has been achieved. What you learn in that altered state transfers over to the sober world. How could it not, given its profundity?

    In the past, I saw people as machinery that existed for be used and discarded. I treat people like garbage because I didn’t see them as real. I harmed myself, battering my limbs and face bloody against the walls because I didn’t know how to process the world. Now, I refuse to harm another human being and I no longer engage in self harm, nor do I ever feel desire to do so. I treat people better, I do not get angry, I do not judge, I do not hold prejudice for any reason. I feel real guilt when my mistakes or actions harm others, and I feel the need to resolve conflicts, make connections and heal. Not only did cannabis unlock my ability to feel, it unlocked in me a degree of reason and understanding for all people and their unique (if often times bizarre!) intellects.

    Empathy goes beyond the mere reading of surface emotions–it’s also how we understand, love and support the diversity and intellectual sovereignty of all individuals which, let’s face it, is the basis of freedom and respect, two of the greatest human qualities we have. These past few years, I’ve felt like a human being, a living individual full of contradictions and complexities that can recognize the same qualities in others. Who knew such a feeling could be so fulfilling? No wonder I laughed so hard. Everything just became so absurdly obvious in the face of it that I could do nothing else.

    TL;DR, cannabis saved my life. My only regret was that I was too scared to try it when I was younger, and willfully ignorant, thanks to the anti-cannabis crusaders of my conservative state. I have no doubt it would have changed the course of my life for the better from the get go, especially after reading this article and its follow ups. I know exactly how those kids feel.

    I apologize for the long ramble. I’m glad people are out there doing this research and making this known. I personally feel that adults with autism (and parents of autistic children) are less likely to try cannabis because they are already sensitive, and fear the effects of a plant that is still sadly considered in many parts of the world to be an ‘illicit’ destructive substance. The truth of the matter is that this plant is not destructive and should not *be* illicit. I should not have to risk my freedom to obtain viable medicinal relief for a mental disorder that has systematically ruled my life.

    1. Loved reading this Post. Fair play to you. Have a 5 year old autistic son and this Post is definitely making me think about trying medical marijuana for his eating aversions. Good luck to you

  5. As a special needs teacher and marijuana advocate, one must be careful to assess each individual (and they themselves if cogent enough); the continuum suggests that some would benefit a lot, and some not so much.

    That’s my gut feeling from working in “Ground Zero” type Education systems for a quarter century, from Protective custody in the prison system to students with standard scores under 70.

    The bottom line is, more would benefit from cannabis than not I suspect. We just have to prove that for the naysayers, no small task indeed.

  6. sebastian marincolo

    To Bo: Thank you so much for your incredibly moving personal account which so powerfull reminded me about the importance of my own research and writing. I find your detailed observations highly interesting and think you should actually try to turn your story into an article that you could send to Lester Grinspooon’s website project It would also be interesting for magazines etc.
    I wish you all the best and am happy to hear how much you profitted from marijuana. Sorry for the late reply, I found your report only today.

  7. sebastian marincolo

    To John: That’s an interesting point you make about computer games and how marijuana can help you to “slip into” your game avatar. However, there’s of course a danger here because this intensified sensation and feeling can contribute to gaming addiction. So, while I agree with you that a high can enhance this experience in that way, I’d strongly recomment to focus one’s use during a high on real people and their works/music (as you mentioned, too).

  8. I’m in New York and have no idea how to find a doctor (will travel) for my son who will consider cannibis treatment..any suggestions?

    1. Get some Hemp based CBD which is currently legal at hemp stores or online.
      You can find capsules or drops called tinctures. Start with 10 mg for a few days and see how he responds.

  9. Chris Skier

    After reading many articles on the effects of CBD oil on the endocannabinoid system I gave my 28 year old daughter CW oil.
    She was diagnosed at 12 with depression, Bipolar, later anxiety, maybe Borderline Personality Disorder, possible PTSD and fibromyalgia w arthritis. A nurse mentioned she may have sensory processing issues when she was 24. Her psychiatrist recently diagnosed Aspergers. After one week on CW Every day Plus she stopped having episodes (seizures, sensory meltdowns, panic attacks). She slept longer and deeper. Needed much less pain med for muscle/joint pain. She was calmer, more peaceful, sweet. No angry, frustrated outbursts. She also was getting overheated which always added to anxiety and sensory issues. Less fatigue, happier, engaging more in conversation. Truthfully it’s all rather shocking! Charlottes Web CBD has made a huge impact on many lives.

    Note: Not all CBD is effective.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Author and reviewer

  • Profile-image

    Sensi Seeds

    The Sensi Seeds Editorial team has been built throughout our more than 30 years of existence. Our writers and editors include botanists, medical and legal experts as well as renown activists the world over including Lester Grinspoon, Micha Knodt, Robert Connell Clarke, Maurice Veldman, Sebastian Maríncolo, James Burton and Seshata.
    More about this author
  • Sanjai_Sinha

    Sanjai Sinha

    Dr Sanjai Sinha is an academic faculty member at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. He spends his time seeing patients, teaching residents and medical students, and doing health services research. He enjoys patient education and practicing evidence-based medicine. His strong interest in medical review comes from these passions.
    More about this reviewer
Scroll to Top