According to the CDC, one out of every 68 children in the U.S is born with autism. That’s a thirty percent increase from last year. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects people in varying degrees, from high-functioning folks who are verbal and often excel in areas like music, math and art, while less-functional ASD patients may harm themselves or have difficulty doing everyday tasks.
Scientists don’t fully understand what causes autism, but they are beginning to gain a better idea of its roots. Research shows that autism is tied to early brain development. In other cases, researchers identified environmental factors like a genetic predisposition to autism, which affects early brain development. The age of the parent, illness during conception and/or pregnancy, and lack of oxygen to the baby’s brain during pregnancy (or other difficulties during pregnancy) are all risk factors.
With an increased number of children affected, more parents are searching for treatment, most notably parents with self-harming, nonsocial, nonverbal autistic children—children like Kalel Santiago. According to Dr. Giovanni Martinez, a clinical psychologist in Puerto Rico, Kalel couldn’t speak at all before his treatments with hemp oil. Because of his lack of speech, he acted out aggressively. After twice-daily doses of the hemp spray, Kalel began to speak for the first time in his life. “He started using the product three weeks ago. He was a full non-verbal patient. He only made sounds. The only change in his treatments was the use of CBD,” Dr. Martinez told Forbes.
The Santiagos use a CBD spray from a company called Hemp Health, and they’re not alone. Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA) spans seven states, including Arizona, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Iowa and Illinois. They advocate for the right to treat their autistic children with medical marijuana, arguing that the antipsychotic medications doctors typically prescribe to ASD patients have adverse and sometimes serious side effects.
The two FDA-approved antipsychotics prescribed to autistic children are Risperidone (brand name Risperdal) and Aripiprazole (brand name Abilify). The serious side effects for Risperdal consist of “difficulty swallowing, muscle spasms, shaking (tremor), mental/mood changes (such as anxiety, restlessness), signs of infection (such as fever, persistent sore throat), interrupted breathing during sleep,” and even fainting and seizures. The side effects of Abilify consist of much of the same, including drooling and uncontrollable limb movements. It’s clear why these parents have chosen an alternative to these side effects, considering cannabidiol has no reported negative effects. And that’s where the dilemma lies.
All evidence showing cannabinoids can help with the symptoms of autism have been purely anecdotal—until now. In December of last year, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) started working with Zelda Therapeutics, an Australian biopharmaceutical company, to study the effects of cannabis on children with autism. The hospital will not be providing the children with any cannabis, however: “We’re not giving them anything. We’re just gathering data to educate ourselves,” confirms Athena Zuppa, MD, MSCE, director of the hospital’s Center for Clinical Pharmacology. Pennsylvania set the precedent as the first state to count autism as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana, now one of eight states to have done so, along with the Washington, D.C.
This observational study will track patients who already use medical marijuana to treat autism, providing the empirical evidence needed to prove cannabis as an accepted form of treatment for the growing autistic population. But this is far from the first study done. In January of last year in Israel, Dr. Adi Aran set up the first-ever clinical trial to examine whether cannabis can treat autism symptoms. His study includes patients from ages five to twenty-nine, using two different types of cannabis oil and a placebo.
The findings from Dr. Aran’s study will give the rest of the world the push it needs to further their own medical cannabis research and treatment plans. Dr. Aran did warn, however, that cannabis “won’t cure the symptoms, that’s for sure. It will never cure autism. But it certainly can help the quality of life of the families.”
This National Autism Awareness Month, let’s promote awareness and acceptance. Acknowledge the importance of this month and continue the efforts of those affected by ASD—they deserve to have a choice in the medications and treatments used by their loved ones. Legalization of medical marijuana across the country could alleviate the pain and suffering of so many. Contact your state and county representatives, talk to your local hospitals, and if there’s not a group like MAMMA near you, create your own. In essence, live the DOPE life with us and continue to Defend Our Plant Everywhere.