CBD Oil and Autism: What Parents Need to Know
CBD oil is becoming an increasingly popular treatment option for a variety of health conditions – including autism. But is CBD oil a safe autism treatment for kids?
Nicole Harris joined the team in 2018 as a staff writer and was promoted to SEO editor in 2021. She now covers everything from children’s health to parenting trends. Her writing has appeared in Martha Stewart Weddings, Good Housekeeping, The Knot, BobVila.com, and other publications. A graduate of Syracuse University, Nicole currently lives in Queens, New York with her husband.
Autism is a neurological disorder impacting social skills and development. It affects one in 40 American children today, according to a December 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many children with autism have difficulty interacting with others, and some display unusual patterns of behavior like ritualistic motions. Individual cases of autism fall on a spectrum ranging from mild to severe.
Doctors don’t know the cause of autism, but environmental and genetic factors may play a role. There’s also no cure for autism; however, a variety of interventions (like occupational and speech therapies) can lessen the severity of symptoms. One of the newest and most controversial treatment options is cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a natural substance extracted from cannabis.
CBD oil is made without large amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chemical that’s responsible for the psychedelic effects of marijuana – so it can’t technically get you “high.” It has become widely available in health food stores and medical marijuana dispensaries across the country – usually in liquid, cream, or gel capsule form.
In preliminary studies, CBD oil has been shown to improve a variety of physical and mental health conditions like chronic pain, anxiety, ADHD, gastrointestinal illness, insomnia, cancer, and more. And in an April 2018 study of 60 children published in Neurology, a group of Israeli researchers found that CBD oil reduced autism-induced behavioral, communication, and anxiety problems.
Parents across the country have hopped on these findings and starting giving CBD oil to their children. Many claim CDB oil helps regulate emotions, promote better sleep, and control autism symptoms.
As with every new medical breakthrough, though, CBD oil isn’t without drawbacks. According to Mandi Silverman, PsyD, MBA, senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute, there’s a lack of information about using CBD for behavioral disorders, especially in young children. That’s why Silverman and many other health professionals suggest parents learn the facts before stocking up on CBD oil.
“As parents, we give ourselves the daunting task of fixing everything. When your child is diagnosed with a developmental disorder like autism, the desire to fix things is even more exaggerated,” she says. “Treatment for autism takes time. Parents see CBD oil as this option that can address some of the needs in a way nothing else can.”
But despite how tempting CBD oil may be as an autism treatment, Silverman says it’s “not an intervention with an evidence base.” It’s also not an FDA-approved method for treating autism.
Here are a few more issues surrounding the treatment of autism with CBD oil:
Some parents may also wonder about the legal issues regarding CBD oil. Some states allow CBD oil as long as it’s derived from hemp, but not from marijuana. Other states outlaw CBD altogether, and some permit it for certain uses. Research your own state’s legislation for more details.
So what’s the bottom line? If you’re considering treating your child’s autism with CBD oil, thoroughly research the positives and negatives. Talk to your child’s doctor – or someone who is well-educated in using CBD oil for medical purposes. And when it comes to choosing products, try finding out how much THC it contains. It’s always best to be an informed consumer when making decisions regarding your child’s health.
CBD Oil as a Treatment for Autism
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.
Verywell Health articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and healthcare professionals. These medical reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.
Stephanie Hartselle, MD, is a board-certified pediatric and adult psychiatrist and Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
Cannabidiol , sometimes called CBD, is a chemical compound found in the cannabis plant. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry does not support the use of any cannabinoids in children or teens for the diagnosis of autism.
In fact, CBD oil has been studied as a potential treatment for autism, but the results do not support its use in treating children or adults who have this disorder. And, according to Harvard Health Publishing, “because CBD currently is typically available as an unregulated supplement, it’s hard to know exactly what you are getting.”
Currently, there are some treatments that may alleviate some symptoms of autism, but there is no cure.
CBD can be derived from hemp or cannabis (the marijuana plant) and is now legal in many states in the United States and in many countries around the world. It can be purchased without a prescription as an oil, tincture, pill, or chewable pill online and is also an ingredient in edibles ranging from coffee to pastries. It comes in many dosages and at many price points.
Claims for CBD range from the realistic to the absurd. Some websites and companies claim, for example, that CBD can cure cancer (it can’t). On the other hand, CBD does seem to alleviate some symptoms of disorders such as epilepsy, nausea, and muscle spasticity—all issues that can affect some people with autism. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “the strongest scientific evidence is for its effectiveness is in treating epilepsy disorders of Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), which typically don’t respond to anti-seizure medications.”
The FDA has approved a cannabis-derived medicine for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy, Epidiolex, which contains CBD.
It’s important for parents to know that CBD is not helpful for everyone who uses it, and it can cause side effects, such as sleepiness or nausea.
CBD and Autism
Neither CBD nor any other drug can remove or cure core symptoms of autism, which include social communication challenges, sensory dysfunction, and restricted, repetitive behaviors.
CBD can, however, help to alleviate epilepsy in some children and adults with autism. Fewer seizures can lessen stress and make it easier to interact socially.
A few full-scale studies have explored the impact of CBD on children with autism—none, however, have explored its impact on adults on the spectrum. One of the largest such studies took place in Israel. The report includes the following finding:
“In 2014, The Ministry of Health began providing licenses for the treatment of children with epilepsy. After seeing the results of cannabis treatment on symptoms like anxiety, aggression, panic, tantrums and self-injurious behavior, in children with epilepsy, parents of severely autistic children turned to medical cannabis for relief.”
Studies are ongoing in clinics and research centers around the world.
Before Trying CBD
Before considering CBD oil, it’s important to follow these steps:
- Check with your child’s (or your) doctor to be sure that no allergies or sensitivities exist that could cause a reaction to CBD.
- Check with your child’s doctor to see if the medical benefits of CBD oil are relevant to your child’s symptoms.
- Check to be sure that CBD is legal in your state, province, or country.
- Research sources of CBD to be sure the brand you’re using is well-regarded and properly licensed.
- Take careful notes about your child’s (or your own) behaviors and symptoms so that you can make a useful comparison before and after using CBD.
CBD comes in many forms and at many dosage levels, including candy forms. It’s important to keep candy-like drugs and supplements out of the reach of children.
Lower doses are more easily tolerated than higher doses.
When you start using any new supplement, drug, or treatment, it’s important to be sure your child’s doctor is aware of the new treatment and has no concerns about it relative to your child’s health. Let everyone working with your child know that you’ve started something new and ask them to look for and report any changes in behaviors or skills.
Take careful notes of any changes you see so you can easily review your records to determine how helpful the new treatment really is. Keep an eye open for any troubling side effects. Be sure to communicate any side effects to a doctor or healthcare professional immediately.
A Word From Verywell
Children with autism grow and learn every day, simply because they are maturing. As a result, there is no simple way to determine whether a change in behavior or an increase in skills is due to a particular treatment or to ordinary maturation. This reality makes it very easy to see a change in behaviors and inaccurately attribute them to the newest treatment you’ve tried. By far, the best way to know whether a particular treatment is truly effective is to be rigorous about evaluating your child before and after its use.