In the U.S., a heartbreaking 1 in 45 babies are born falling within the autism spectrum. This very often comes with a multitude of debilitating symptoms with can include impaired communication and social skills as well as repetitive and compulsive behaviors. On the more severe end of the spectrum, sufferers can experience aggressive behavior and often harm themselves.

At this time in the U.S., there are only two approved medications for the treatment of autism symptoms.

Unfortunately, these drugs, which are antipsychotics, are not always effective and can also have some serious side effects.

A study conducted by The Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem reviewed 120 children and young adults, ages 5 to 29, all of whom fell on different points on the autism spectrum. According to the study, nearly all participants had taken antipsychotics at one point and nearly half responded negatively to the medication. A disappointing outcome for drug that is meant to treat a condition that is sadly, so widespread.

There is good news on the horizon, however. Another treatment option is beginning to gain momentum: cannabis.

Currently in Israel, the first clinical trial of cannabis for autistic children is being conducted. For this study, participants are given either liquid drops of one of two different cannabis oil formulas, or a placebo. Neither of the oils given has a high concentration of THC, which is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The oil is high in cannabidiol, or CBD, the main non-psychoactive compound in marijuana.

The results of the trial appear to look promising so far. One participant’s mother reported that her child was speaking regularly after having never spoke before, thanks at least in part to CBD oil.

 

It only took six months for the Israeli government to approve this particular clinical trial. The country is leading cannabis research with 110 clinical trials currently underway.  In contrast, the U.S. has blocked almost all clinical trials of cannabis.

 Despite this, the U.S. has spent money on marijuana research. It is estimated that since 2008, the U.S. has spent over $1.4 billion on cannabis research. However, $1.2 billion of that funding went to study addiction, drug abuse and withdrawal, instead of treatments for disease. 

On a positive note, states are moving forward with the issue without the federal government. Minnesota recently added autism spectrum disorder to the list of conditions that meet the guidelines for treatment with medical marijuana. Georgia, as well as Pennsylvania, also recognize autism as a qualifying condition and have no requirements for age. In Oregon and Washington, D.C., autism is categorized under other approved conditions, giving physicians the right to prescribe cannabis at their discretion.

Much more work needs to be done since so few states allow cannabis to be used to treat autism.

This forces many parents to have to choose between doing something illegal to help their child or standing by and hopelessly watching them suffer.  

]One such example is Mark Zartler. His18-year-old daughter Kara suffers from severe autism with self-injurious behavior, as well as Cerebral Palsy. She often has tantrums that can cause her to hurt herself as well as others. The combination of these two conditions requires her to take numerous pharmaceutical medications. That’s how her life was until 2011 when her father Mark made the decision to try cannabis vapor to treat her symptoms.

 

Mark reported that within 10 minutes, the cannabis vapor helped, providing a drastic change in his daughter. Her quality of life has improved and she only takes 2-3 medications per day. She is more involved in daily tasks that were, before, impossible for her to accomplish. Things like bathing and self-care, eating, smiling, making eye contact, improved sleep and other things that most people take for granted are within her grasp now. She seems happier overall.

As amazing as the benefits of marijuana have been for Kara, the challenges her family faces are just as monumental. Mark and his family live in Texas, not a state where marijuana is legal.  This forces Mark to have to resort to using the black market to obtain medicine for his daughter. Not only does he run the risk of getting into legal trouble, he sometimes has little control over the product he receives. Because of this, he is unable to get the exact strain consistently for his daughter that she would need to treat her conditions. Treating his daughter is a process of trial and error. Were medical marijuana legal in Texas, he could easily obtain precisely what his daughter needs from a physician without having to run the risk of getting arrested.

He shares the plight that thousands of parents with autistic children face. Cannabis is a medicine and has been used for thousands of years. It is only within the last couple of centuries that marijuana has become criminalized - around the same time that the pharmaceutical industry started gaining momentum.

It’s no secret that countless people suffering from a plethora of diseases and conditions could be helped by a plant that in many places is still illegal.

It is interesting and alarming to note the rate at which autism rates have increased. In the U.S. autism in children has increased by 119.4 percent since 2000. That’s 1 in 150 children to 1 in 68 children with autism in 2010. This puts autism in first place as the fastest growing developmental disability. The number of children diagnosed with autism this year will be greater than new diagnoses for cancer, AIDS and diabetes combined.

It is also costly: Autism services cost U.S. citizens from $236 to $262 billion annually.