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Can CBD Oil Help A Child With Autism?

Can CBD Oil Help a Child With AutismAccording to the Food and Drug Administration, cannabis contains more than eighty different active chemical compounds.  The most commonly known compounds are tetrahydrocannabinol or THC and cannabidiol or CBD.  THC is primarily sought by recreational drug users for psychoactive properties.  While CBD does not have the same psychoactive properties as THC, it does impact brain chemistry.  With nationwide changes in cannabis laws and a growing supply of CBD derived products, many parents now wonder if CBD can also affect the brain functioning of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Research on CBD as a treatment for autism

Unfortunately, the research on CBD as a treatment for ASD is limited. The Food and Drug Administration has only approved two CBD products–both of which are prescribed for the treatment of epilepsy, not for autism.  Yet the research into CBD for the treatment of epilepsy may be where parents discovered CBD for autism in the first place.

CBD Oil and Epilepsy Treatment

Autism and epilepsy have high comorbidity rates, with as many as one-third of children with ASD also having a diagnosed seizure disorder. By comparison, roughly 1-2% of the general population have seizure disorders.

More than 30 studies have examined the use of CBD and medical THC to control seizures.    Results vary among individuals in these studies, with some individuals with epilepsy seeing improvements in seizure frequency and severity.  However, other individuals see limited benefits from the use of CBD.  Others experience adverse side effects of CBD.  Clinical trials continue around the country, and additional information will likely become available over time.

Other studies on CBD Oil for Autism. 

The studies specifically examining the use of CBD for the treatment of autism are more limited in number and scope than those for epilepsy.

One of the first notable clinical trials of CBD success was published in April 2018 in the journal Neurology. In the study of 60 children with ASD, a group of Israeli researchers found that CBD reduced autism-induced behavioral, communication, and anxiety problems in 61% of children.  The study’s findings were significant enough to launch over 100 other clinical trials on the use of cannabis and CBD products for children on the spectrum. Many of these clinical trials are still underway.

In April 2020, the results of one of these follow up studies were posted in the journal Neurology. The small clinical trial examined the medical charts of 20 medical cannabis users with ASD to explore changes in symptoms over time.  Like many of its predecessors, the clinical trial observed changes in the symptoms of autism, including mood, behaviors, sleep, and communication.  Results from this study also showed improvements in both seizures, reported pain, and parent report of ASD symptoms. Results also showed that three of the 20 participants experienced side effects from taking cannabis.

Parents Risk The Use of CBD Anyway

As more social media attention falls on studies like these, a growing number of parents have started using CBD oils and CBD-derived products with their children anyway.  A recent article on a popular autism parenting website about CBD oil had more than 2500 shares just a few days after publication.   Combined with anecdotal reports from parents, the misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of CBD oil has spread widely in forums and social media posts.

Even though the studies and anecdotal reports indicate some promising findings, autism researchers and the Food and Drug Administration warn much more work is needed before CBD oil can be confirmed as a safe treatment for ASD.

The Limitations of the Research

Although the studies above indicate that CBD oil may be helpful for some children with ASD, three significant limitations must be noted.

  • Limited Sample Size. The collective of studies on CBD includes too small of a sample size of the ASD population to indicate safety and significance for all individuals with ASD.
  • Participants were mostly adults, not children. Most of the studies investigated the impacts of CBD in adults, not children.  It requires more rigorous ethical standards to prescribe alternative treatments to minors and even higher standards for children with developmental disabilities.  Until studies rigorously demonstrate the safety in adults, we’ll likely see very few reviews with CBD and children.  This dramatically limits what we know about the safety of giving CBD to children, and specifically children with ASD.
  • Impacts of CBD in the long-term. None of the research to date has followed children with ASD who take CBD for long periods.  There are no known investigations of the long-term effects of prescribing CBD oil, meaning we have no way of knowing if the long-term consumption of CBD products may cause even more significant issues with the body or the brain.

Is it safe to give children CBD oil?

In addition to the limitations of clinical research, several other considerations should be made about the safety of giving CBD oil to children with autism.

  • As mentioned above, the research on CBD as a treatment for autism is limited. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning the symptoms and severity vary greatly among individuals.  Little is known about which symptoms CBD may address and which children may benefit.  Until further research is done, there are risks in administering CBD.
  • The two CBD products that have received FDA approval are for a rare form of epilepsy with genetic causes. The FDA has not approved CBD for all kinds of epilepsy or seizure disorders associated with ASD.
  • The Food and Drug Administration or state agencies do not consistently regulate CBD oils. No controls exist to ensure the concentration of CBD or other ingredients among different manufacturers or different batches.
  • CBD has known side effects in children and adults, including drowsiness and fatigue, as well as gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea and decreased appetite. CBD may also cause adverse changes in mood in some individuals, including irritability and agitation.
  • CBD may interact with other medications. No studies have examined the impacts of CBD in children with ASD who take other psychotropic medications.

Finally, depending on where you live, there may be regulations about the use of CBD oil derived from marijuana or hemp.  CBD oils may be legal in your state, but local and federal rules may prevent its use.  Your child’s school or clinic may also have regulations about the use of CBD oil. While these regulations may not impact the safety of administering CBD to your child, it’s essential to consider the legal consequences for you and your child of violating any known regulations.

Seek Advice of Your Medical Professionals

Although this article provides general advice about CBD oil as a treatment for high-functioning autism, it should not take the place of medical advice.  Every child with ASD is different, with unique needs and physiology.  What one parent or medical professional reports works for one child may require a completely different strategy for another child. There may also be underlying biological factors unique to your child that should be carefully considered.

Under no circumstances should you begin treatment changes like administering CBD oil without consulting your child’s medical care team. If your child’s medical team is unfamiliar with CBD, identify a professional with experience in working with children with ASD and alternative treatments.

Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology | University of Minnesota

May 2020

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