Cannabis for Autism: What Science Says

A Texas family took a huge risk in sharing a heart-wrenching story about autism.  

In a video posted on Facebook, we meet Kara Zartler, a Texas resident with severe autism and cerebral palsy. Press play, and you watch as Kara repeatedly punches herself in the face, bashes her head and screams—behaviors common in her daily life. As the self-abuse continues, she is approached by her dad, Mark Zartler, who gently places a breathing mask over his daughter’s nose and mouth that emits cannabis vapor. Within minutes she calms and is at peace, rocking in the chair. The violence ends, but the family’s difficulties were just beginning.

That video, posted on Facebook by Mr. Zartler in 2017, has been watched by 1.5 million people (a similar Facebook post by national outlet ATTN: Video has received 90 million views). It quickly became a national news story as publications such as The Washington Post wrote about this testament to a father’s love, and to the calming powers of cannabis.

But officials from Texas Child Protective Services also saw the videos, and they initiated an investigation and court hearing to consider whether Mr. Zartler was guilty of child abuse, for giving his then 17-year-old daughter an illegal drug. The investigation jeopardized his guardianship status for a daughter who would soon legally be an adult and clearly needed long-term care.

From the Zartlers’ experience, you can see why cannabis has been embraced by some parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and they’re not alone.

A February 2018 article in Newsweek describes the experiences of Benjamin, age 4, and his single mom, Sharon, who was being driven to despair by her son’s tantrums and self-harm. The fistful of pharmaceutical drugs he had been prescribed had thus far proved either ineffective, or offered temporary relief, or made the symptoms worse. But there was one thing in Sharon’s and Benjamin’s favor: They live in Israel, which has been at the global forefront of medical cannabis research since the 1960s. So Sharon reached out to Dr. Adi Aran, an Israeli pediatrician who has been investigating the cannabis derivative cannabidiol (CBD) to help calm symptoms of ASD.

The compound CBD, a non-intoxicating component of the cannabis plant, has received much attention in recent years for its medical benefits. Currently, the Texas medical cannabis program allows qualifying patients with intractable epilepsy to get a prescription to receive low-THC cannabis oil that’s rich in CBD from licensed providers. Compassionate Cultivation, which opened in February 2018, has helped hundreds of patients of all ages with our CBD medicine, serving patients statewide.

Dr. Aran was at first reluctant to administer cannabis-based medication to young children. But based on the famed success, and safety, of treating epilepsy with CBD, he decided to conduct an informal trial on his ASD patients with an oral cannabis-derived medication. It wasn’t that much of a leap: Children with autism often suffer from epilepsy as well, and the two conditions share some symptoms, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.

Dr. Aran’s study of 60 children, published in Neurology, revealed medical cannabis could be “a promising treatment option for refractory behavioral problems in children with ASD.” Among the study findings: The oral cannabis formulation calmed behavioral outbreaks in 61 percent of the patients; additionally, it helped with anxiety (39 percent) and communication problems (47 percent). Based on these preliminary results, Dr. Aran and his research team launched a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, which is considered the gold standard in clinical research. Since January 2017 they have been tracking treatment of 150 children; the researchers hope to publish results in 2019.

Meanwhile, many families are moving ahead and experimenting with medical cannabis, despite legal risks. These families are seeking solutions largely on their own, with scientific study long hampered by the placement of cannabis in the most restrictive federal classification of controlled substances. Which is why the Texas-based advocacy group Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMAs) is pressing for access on the state level in the upcoming Texas legislative session.

As for the Zartler family: A judge weighed the evidence in the March 2018 hearing, and declared Mark Zartler a fit guardian for Kara. Time will tell if Texas families in similar circumstances will have another treatment option to explore under the care and guidance of their medical team.

Feature photo credit: Pixabay