In The Politics of Autism, I write:
The conventional wisdom is that any kind of treatment is likely to be less effective as the child gets older, so parents of autistic children usually believe that they are working against the clock. They will not be satisfied with the ambiguities surrounding ABA, nor will they want to wait for some future research finding that might slightly increase its effectiveness. They want results now. Because there are no scientifically-validated drugs for the core symptoms of autism, they look outside the boundaries of mainstream medicine and FDA approval. Studies have found that anywhere from 28 to 54 percent of autistic children receive “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and these numbers probably understate CAM usageThese approaches sometimes include marijuana.
Rhode Island is one of a small but growing number of states that allow medical marijuana for treating severe forms of autism.
The decision is raising hopes for some parents of autistic children. But there's scant scientific evidence about the benefits — and risks — of marijuana use in these children.
"The research basis for a lot of the hopes for using medical marijuana for autism - it's really minimal," says David G. Amaral, a psychologist and research director of the M.I.N.D. Institute at University of California, Davis. (M.I.N.D. stands for Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders.) "I mean there's very meager clinical evidence for effectiveness."
Meager evidence because there have been no large clinical trials to determine whether marijuana or its compounds are effective — or safe — in treating children with autism.
"Unless there's a clinical trial done in the right way and showing the safety, No. 1, of the drug," Amaral says, "and then the benefit of it ... it may be that families are wasting their time — and maybe exposing their family members to a potentially dangerous situation."
That's not to say that marijuana doesn't hold promise for autism treatment. In fact, the first large-scale clinical trial in the U.S. to test the idea is just getting underway at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
The trial, funded with a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, will examine the effectiveness of a cannabis-based compound known as CBDV (which stands for cannabidivarin) on irritability and repetitive behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders.
The study's lead researcher, Dr. Eric Hollander, directs the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The trial is expected to enroll about 100 patients and be completed in 2021.