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2023 Study: Caregiver Views on Cannabis for Autism

Updated: 3 days ago

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A 2023 study entitled "Caregivers' Views on Cannabis Use for Their Children with Autism" that was published in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders surveyed "caregivers of autistic children about their experience, knowledge, and interest in medical cannabis use for their children."


The research reported that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder and that it affects one in 44 children, according to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"ASD core features are challenges in social communication and the presence of repetitive and stereotypic patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities," reported the study. It noted that ASD patients commonly display symptoms that include anxiety, attention difficulties, sleep disturbances, challenges with social interaction, empathy, communication, and sensory differences.


Concerns about negative side effects of conventional therapies have resulted in "growing interest in the potential utility of cannabis."

"The controversy concerning the federal classification of cannabis has led to many voices advocating for or against the use of [the herb], raising questions about the quality and volume of research," noted the scientists.


The Study

The study reported that concerns about negative side effects of conventional pharmaceutical therapies and drugs, including addiction and withdrawal, have resulted in "growing interest in the potential utility of cannabis as a perceived natural, alternative treatment in autism."

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The researchers cited the fact that the majority of U.S. states have legalized cannabis use in some manner (either medical or adult-use programs) and that this has resulted in a surge of interest in researching and using cannabis to treat a range of conditions, including anxiety, sleep disorders and appetite disorders.


"Only about seven percent of respondents had used cannabis to treat their children."

The design of the study was that of a survey that involved 4,385 people, of which 568 responded. All participants were caregivers of autistic children between the ages of five and ten and were recruited from a children's hospital in New Jersey and the Autism Speaks website. The majority of participants were white or Latino and female.


Results

Most survey participants were not familiar with cannabis use in autism. Only about seven percent of respondents had used cannabis to treat their children. Most participants had learned about cannabis from the internet, not health or wellness professionals.

Interestingly, 85 percent of participants reported a willingness to experiment with cannabis in the treatment of their child's ASD. Participants reported seeking relief from ASD symptoms that included "difficulty focusing, hyperactivity, sensory sensitivities, and anxiety." Roughly half of respondents voiced a concern that cannabis might interact with current medication in a negative way.


Conclusions

The study concluded that most caregivers of children with ASD are willing to try cannabis. However, the researchers noted that parents of ASD children need "more informed guidance on this topic." The study's authors also reported that additional research is necessary to understand the true value and potential adverse effects of cannabis for individuals with autism.


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