EducationThe benefits and risks of taking THC for Autism

The benefits and risks of taking THC for Autism

8 min read

Sam North

The benefits and risks of taking THC for Autism


Over 1.5 million UK residents have autism, which is a neurodevelopmental condition.

Autism awareness has increased globally, and research is exploring factors that impact autism such as gender, age, and co-existing health conditions. Patients with autism perceive, interact, and respond to various environments and stimuli differently from neurotypical people. Pharmaceutical medications and behavioural therapy are often used to manage symptoms, but there are limitations to their effectiveness and issues with potential side effects. As such, some patients and caregivers are exploring alternative treatments, and in recent years, research has started to focus on medical cannabis.

Although medical cannabis treatments do not offer a cure for autism, the currently available clinical data shows that they may help to manage symptoms, such as hyperactivity and agitation, safely and effectively.

What is Autism?

The jury is still out on what are the exact causes of autism. Scientists believe Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may be caused by both genetic and environmental factors, or a combination of both. Autism is a neurological condition with behavioural and cognitive symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Patients with autism tend to have problems with social communication and interaction. They may have repetitive behaviours or interests and they may demonstrate divergent ways of learning and have difficulty paying attention and processing information.

Adults with autism often demonstrate common symptoms that include challenges in navigating new environments, interpreting social cues, and expressing emotions. They can find it challenging to establish new interpersonal relationships, even when they might want to seek out friendships. Their way of interpreting the world and then expressing or responding to stimuli may seem unconventional to neurotypical people.

With effective treatment, people with autism can lead full, rewarding lives, but as mentioned above, there is currently no known cure for autism.

Therapies and interventions that yield the most effective results can vary from person to person. However, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) typically show the greatest response to specialized and highly structured programs. In certain instances, these treatments can significantly alleviate symptoms and enhance the ability of individuals with autism to engage in their daily activities.

There are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK, which equates to around one percent of the population. Around 30% of individuals with autism have epilepsy or a history of seizures at some point in their lives.

What is THC, and how does it interact with the body?

Before we dive into how medical cannabis, and THC more specifically, may be beneficial for people with autism, let's have a look at what THC is exactly, and how it interacts with the human body.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is one of the major cannabinoids produced by the cannabis sativa L. plant. It is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis and is responsible for producing the 'high' often associated with the recreational use of cannabis. However, an ever-growing body of research shows that THC also has potential therapeutic effects.

So, how does THC offer these therapeutic effects?

Well, just like many other cannabinoids, THC interacts with the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a complex signalling system that controls various physiological and psychological processes, such as mood, pain sensation, appetite, and sleep. It is the largest self-regulatory system in the human body and is involved in maintaining balance, or homeostasis, within the body.

The ECS is made up of three key components: endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors, and enzymes. Endocannabinoids are chemical compounds that the body produces naturally and act as messengers, transmitting signals throughout the body to help regulate various functions. Cannabinoid receptors are found all over the body, including the brain, nerves, and immune system. They can be activated by both endocannabinoids and cannabinoids from plants, like THC. Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they have completed their function.

When THC is consumed, it interacts with the body's cannabinoid receptors, primarily CB1. This interaction can lead to various effects, such as altered mood, pain relief, and changes in perception. For people with autism, these effects may help manage some of the symptoms associated with the condition.

Does THC offer benefits for Autism?

As we've mentioned earlier, medical cannabis is not a cure for autism. But there is growing evidence that suggests THC, and medical cannabis more generally, may help in managing some of the symptoms associated with autism when administered in conjunction with other therapies and interventions.

One case study we can highlight comes from 2022, and while it only involves a single nine-year-old male patient, it still offers an interesting look at how medical cannabis could be used to manage autism. Based on the study, the patient's symptoms associated with autism were effectively managed when treated with a full-spectrum oil formulation containing high CBD and low THC (20 mg of CBD and 1 mg of THC). This treatment option not only improved the patient's quality of life but also provided relief to the caregivers.

"Overall, the patient experienced a reduction in negative behaviours, including violent outbursts, self-injurious behaviours, and sleep disruptions. There was an improvement in social interactions, concentration, and emotional stability."

Then we have this paper, also from 2022, titled "Cannabis and cannabinoid use in autism spectrum disorder: A Systematic Review". Nine studies were selected and analysed for this review, with all of them showing improvements in at least one area of social communication and/or behaviour. The authors found there was evidence to support the idea that medical cannabis reduced the number and/or intensity of different symptoms, including:

  • hyperactivity
  • attacks of self-mutilation and anger
  • sleep problems
  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • psychomotor agitation
  • irritability
  • aggressiveness perseverance
  • depression

When we look at medical cannabis research in a broader context, there are also studies that support these findings. People with ASD often report feeling high levels of anxiety, having difficulty with sleep, feeling depressed, and struggling with social interactions. As discussed, THC can offer relief in many of these areas.

The risks of taking THC for Autism

Not only should THC not be seen as some type of miracle drug for autism, but it is also essential to note that there are associated risks with its administration. It is imperative that before you make any decisions regarding your treatment and medical cannabis, you first consult with your clinical team, and find a doctor who is qualified and registered to provide cannabis-based medical products here in the UK.

THC is an intoxicating compound, and while it may offer relief for many symptoms, it can also come with side effects. Short-term side effects may include dry mouth, red eyes, impaired motor coordination, and increased heart rate. Long-term use may lead to potential risks, such as addiction and cognitive impairment in adolescents.

Additionally, there is still a lack of research surrounding the long-term effects of THC on the developing brain. As ASD is a developmental disorder, it is essential to examine these potential risks before making any treatment decisions.

The dosage size is something that also needs to be considered very carefully. While THC can reduce anxiety at low doses, it has the ability to increase anxiety, or even trigger panic attacks at higher doses.

The wrap up

At the present time, there is simply not enough evidence to fully understand the long-term effects and risks of using THC for autism. There are many factors at play, including the individual's genetics, age, dosage size, and other medical conditions. It is vital that any decision to take THC as a treatment method for autism is made with careful consideration and under the supervision of a qualified medical professional.

Hopefully, in the next few years, we will see a significant increase in research surrounding medical cannabis and autism. As more data becomes available, we will be better able to understand the potential benefits and risks of administering THC for autism.

Releaf understands that embarking on your medical cannabis journey can be overwhelming, and even slightly intimidating – that’s why we offer tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and our unique medical cannabis card to give you the peace of mind that your treatment is protected, all based on your medical cannabis prescription.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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Editorial Team