CBD oil is becoming an increasingly popular treatment option for a variety of health conditions – including autism. But is CBD oil a safe autism treatment for kids?

By Nicole Harris
Updated: April 08, 2019
Bess-Hamiti/Pixabay

Autism is a neurological disorder impacting social skills and development. It affects one in 40 American children today, according to a December 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many children with autism have difficulty interacting with others, and some display unusual patterns of behavior like ritualistic motions. Individual cases of autism fall on a spectrum ranging from mild to severe.

Doctors don’t know the cause of autism, but environmental and genetic factors may play a role. There’s also no cure for autism; however, a variety of interventions (like occupational and speech therapies) can lessen the severity of symptoms. One of the newest and most controversial treatment options is cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a natural substance extracted from cannabis.

CBD oil is made without large amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chemical that’s responsible for the psychedelic effects of marijuana – so it can’t technically get you “high.” It has become widely available in health food stores and medical marijuana dispensaries across the country – usually in liquid, cream, or gel capsule form.

In preliminary studies, CBD oil has been shown to improve a variety of physical and mental health conditions like chronic pain, anxiety, ADHD, gastrointestinal illness, insomnia, cancer, and more. And in an April 2018 study of 60 children published in Neurology, a group of Israeli researchers found that CBD oil reduced autism-induced behavioral, communication, and anxiety problems.

Parents across the country have hopped on these findings and starting giving CBD oil to their children. Many claim CDB oil helps regulate emotions, promote better sleep, and control autism symptoms.

As with every new medical breakthrough, though, CBD oil isn’t without drawbacks. According to Mandi Silverman, PsyD, MBA, senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute, there’s a lack of information about using CBD for behavioral disorders, especially in young children. That’s why Silverman and many other health professionals suggest parents learn the facts before stocking up on CBD oil.

“As parents, we give ourselves the daunting task of fixing everything. When your child is diagnosed with a developmental disorder like autism, the desire to fix things is even more exaggerated,” she says. “Treatment for autism takes time. Parents see CBD oil as this option that can address some of the needs in a way nothing else can.”

But despite how tempting CBD oil may be as an autism treatment, Silverman says it’s “not an intervention with an evidence base.” It’s also not an FDA-approved method for treating autism.

Here are a few more issues surrounding the treatment of autism with CBD oil:

  • No clinical trial has analyzed the effects of treating CBD oil with autism, so doctors aren't sure about safety. It’s also unclear exactly how CBD is absorbed into the body.

  • You can't know the exact amount of CBD in your oil. The concentration of ingredients may differ in each batch, says Silverman.

  • CBD oil products aren’t lab tested in every state, according to the Child Mind Institute, so they could potentially contain THC or other unknown items.

  • CBD oil may interact with other medications.

  • Side effects, like drowsiness and dry mouth, may be possible.

No clinical trial has analyzed the effects of treating CBD oil with autism, so doctors aren't sure about safety. It’s also unclear exactly how CBD is absorbed into the body.

You can't know the exact amount of CBD in your oil. The concentration of ingredients may differ in each batch, says Silverman.

CBD oil products aren’t lab tested in every state, according to the Child Mind Institute, so they could potentially contain THC or other unknown items.

CBD oil may interact with other medications.

Side effects, like drowsiness and dry mouth, may be possible.

Some parents may also wonder about the legal issues regarding CBD oil. Some states allow CBD oil as long as it's derived from hemp, but not from marijuana. Other states outlaw CBD altogether, and some permit it for certain uses. Research your own state's legislation for more details. 

So what’s the bottom line? If you’re considering treating your child’s autism with CBD oil, thoroughly research the positives and negatives. Talk to your child’s doctor – or someone who is well-educated in using CBD oil for medical purposes. And when it comes to choosing products, try finding out how much THC it contains. It's always best to be an informed consumer when making decisions regarding your child's health. 

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