There have been stories of how cannabis has helped alleviate symptoms, but scientists are nowhere near a definitive answer
Over my years in the medical profession, many Australian parents of children with autism have asked me if Cannabis/Marijuana treatment is advisable and whether I can assist them in obtaining it for their child.
Now, autism is a very common diagnosis made by paediatricians. It is estimated that one in 100 people has autism; that’s almost 230,000 Australians. Throughout the world, one percent of the population has autism spectrum disorder affecting more than 700 million people. Autism affects almost four times as many boys than girls. The exact cause of the medical condition is still not known yet. Both genetics and environment may play a role. There is no evidence that autism is caused by a child’s upbringing or social circumstances. Despite the overwhelming numbers of people touched by autism and the growing number of people seeking cannabis treatment very few studies are being conducted on marijuana’s ability to help treat autism.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder most commonly involving problems with communication and social interactions. In addition, children with ASD usually have abnormal behaviours, repetitive and stereotypic pattern of behaviour and interests, and poor play skills-pretend and imaginative play. Children with autism spectrum disorder may also have unusual sensory interests such as putting non-edible objects in the mouth, biting etc; sensory sensitivities including avoiding everyday sounds and textures such as hair dryers, vacuum cleaners and glue, food with gravy and sand; and intellectual impairment or learning difficulties.
ASD is an umbrella term that covers many conditions of different severities. The word ‘spectrum’ describes the range of difficulties that people on the autism spectrum may experience and the degree to which they may be affected. Some people may be able to live relatively normal lives, while others may have accompanying learning challenges and require continued specialist support.
ASD can range from mild to severe. It is important to know that despite having similar problem no two children with ASD are exactly the same, and no children with ASD will need the same intervention. Children with mild symptoms are sometimes referred to as ‘high functioning’.
ASD is a lifelong problem with no permanent cure so far. However, early intervention and support in form of Applied Behavioural Therapy, Cognitive behavioural Therapy, Speech Therapy, and Occupational Therapy can be very useful in helping children with ASD.
Medication may be used to control associated problems-sleeping difficulties, aggressive behaviour, hyperactivity, obsessive compulsive behaviour etc. As there is no cure of ASD, desperate parents try many new medications even illegally.
Dr Bernard Rimland, a former director of the Autism Research Institute (ARI), wrote first about using medical marijuana to treat autism. According to the ARI, marijuana has helped improve some of the symptoms in children with autism including anxiety, aggression, panic disorder, tantrums and self-injurious behaviour. Though Rimland died in 2006, his ideas continue to draw interest from parents with children on the spectrum.
There have also been a slew of anecdotal stories from parents of children with autism saying that cannabis improved their children’s symptoms. Hester-Perez, a mother of severely autistic child, Joey had tried special diets and a range of pharmaceuticals, which left Joey emaciated. His autism took an emotional toll on the family as they limited Joey’s exposure to people outside their immediate circle because of his unpredictable behaviour. But Hester-Perez claims that Joey has significant improvement in his behaviour after the use of medicinal marijuana/cannabis.
Hester-Perez is now an International Special Needs Cannabis & Autism Advocate and serves on the boards of a Women’s Alliance for the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
A growing number of clinical trials are looking into whether compounds in marijuana can be used to treat some of the symptoms of autism.
Few of the trials are likely to take place in future by University of California, San Diego, and New York at Montefiore Medical Center and New York University, and in Israel at Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
An upcoming study at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will be the first of its kind in the United States to examine the benefits of medical marijuana in children with ASD. The study is in partnership with an Australian biopharmaceutical company.
However, it is emphasised that it’s still unclear whether cannabis can effectively treat these problems without causing significant side effects.
A non-profit organisation based in USA, Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, donated $4.7 million to the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. Researchers at the CMCR plan to use the money to run a clinical trial testing whether medicinal compounds in cannabis, can improve symptoms in children with severe autism. It will also determine whether cannabis is safe, tolerable and effective in children with autism. In addition will also look how it alters the brain wiring for transmission of messages.
In Australia and USA many parents of autistic children are advocating for the legalisation of medical marijuana to help treat some of the symptoms of autism.
Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA) is a parent advocacy group in USA. MAMMA is working to make medical marijuana legally available to children with autism, of course under supervision of doctors.
Australian medicinal cannabis prescription is very complex and highly regulated. Paediatricians from Australia have highlighted the need for further research into the therapeutic uses of cannabinoids in children and adolescents. Trials on the potential to use marijuana to treat children with autism symptoms are urgently needed in Australia to provide clarity and avoid bad decisions being made. Otherwise there is a risk that these desperate parents can risk putting their children on cannabis illegally.
Israel is now one of three nations, alongside Canada and the Netherlands, to have a government-sponsored cannabis program.
So, is medical cannabis safe? Does it have any effect in controlling symptoms of autism? The answer is that there is no definitive answer yet.
The writer is Director, Western Specialist Centre (www.westernspecialistcentre.com.au)