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Study: With CBD, 80% of Children With Autism Saw Improvement

August 8, 2018
(Dan Balilty/AP)

Israeli researchers have found more compelling evidence that medical cannabis is an effective therapy for children on the autism spectrum. In this soon-to-be-published study in the journal Neurology, researchers treated autistic children with high concentrations of CBD, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant.

Conditions in 80% of the children improved. Alternatively, the children had not shown improvement with conventional drug therapies.

Conditions in 80% of the children improved. Alternatively, the children had not shown improvement with conventional drug therapies.

The Study Up-Close

The study was led by the director of pediatric neurology at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Hospital, Dr. Adi Aran, who treated the 60 children with a high-CBD cannabis oil (20% CBD and 1% THC). The children were treated for at least seven months with the oil.

After the treatment period, parents answered assessment questionnaires to characterize their child’s condition. Questions were asked about behavioral changes, anxiety levels and ability to communicate.

Here’s what they reported:

  • 80% of parents noted a decrease in problematic behaviors, with 62% reporting significant improvements.
  • Half of the children had improved communication.
  • 40% reported significant decreases in anxiety. (Note: one-third of the study participants began the study with no anxiety.)

The Pioneer

Just as Israel is a pioneer in medical cannabis research, Aran is a pioneer in cannabinoid therapy for autism. Aran originally began a 2017 project to test 120 autistic children. It was the first study of its kind worldwide, and was made possible by the Israeli government’s funding and progressive approach to cannabis research.

Aran said that when word of the study got out, his waiting lists were soon full with many families from all over Israel who wanted to participate.

Aran said that when word of the study got out, his waiting lists were soon full with many families from all over Israel who wanted to participate.

Autism spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental in nature, usually appearing in infancy or early childhood and lasting a lifetime. More severe cases have debilitating symptoms including compulsive, repetitive behaviors and impaired social skills and communication. Some children cannot speak at all. Autism affects around 1% of people worldwide.

The causes of autism are not understood and there is no cure—and the prevalence is climbing. In April 2018, the CDC updated its autism prevalence estimates to 1 in 59 children, up from 1 in 166 children in 2004. Doctors traditionally treat symptoms with antipsychotic medications, which have harmful side effects. Some children do not respond to these medications.

Aran began small autism research studies after similar cannabis studies on epilepsy, a disease that affects about 20% of autistic children. While studying epilepsy, researchers discovered that certain cannabis compounds would likely also help some autism symptoms. Less than 2% of the general population has epilepsy, but up to 33% of people with autism also suffer from epilepsy.


Study Finds CBD Drug Epidiolex Reduces Seizures by 42%

Neuroscientist Dr. Thomas Deuel of the Swedish Hospital in Seattle says there is definitely a connection. While scientists do not clearly understand the reasons behind the relationship, they suspect that the different brain development that occurs in autistic children is more likely to create circuits that cause epileptic seizures.

That link has caused many parents to seek out cannabis treatments for their autistic children. Parents certainly have anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of CBD oils on their autistic children, but mainstream medicine has remained skeptical due to the lack of data. With most conditions treated with cannabis, anecdotal evidence and personal experience far outweigh actual peer-reviewed scientific research.

What’s Next for CBD Research?

In 2015, Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital published a baseline review of cannabis and autism studies to date, showing that the research did show promise, but nothing definitive could be said about cannabis’ ability to improve pediatric patients. The Harvard review stated that most research was animal-based and did not yet show translational impacts to human subjects. In fact, the review concluded with the cautionary statement that cannabis treatments should be used as a last resort after all conventional therapies have failed. Indeed, a widespread reluctance exists within the pediatric community to study the effects of cannabis in children, due to the potential of harmful side effects.

Since 2015, only a few small studies have been conducted, with promising results. One of the biggest impacts to spur on future research has been the U.S. Food and Administration (FDA) approval of Epidiolex, a CBD oil-based elixir manufactured by British drug developer GW Pharmaceuticals as a treatment for two rare types of childhood epilepsy. Scientists took notice at the amazing body of evidence that GW Pharmaceuticals presented regarding the effects of the drug.


Is CBD Oil Legal Now? With Epidiolex Approved, It’s Still Not Clear

Now, New York University (NYU) neurologist Dr. Orrin Devinsky, the same scientist who did research on Epidiolex, is now conducting two studies on CBD effects on children aged 5 to 18 with moderate to severe autism. The only other doctor who is currently doing studies like this is Aran.

Since autism and epilepsy go hand in hand, CBD is showing promise for treating both conditions.

Perhaps as doctors begin to see the effects of Epidiolex, and review research like that of Aran’s and Devinsky’s autism studies, many more will begin to delve further into use of medical cannabis.

Jacqueline Havelka's Bio Image

Jacqueline Havelka

Jacqueline Havelka is a contributing writer for Leafly. She's a rocket scientist turned writer, having worked in the space program for many years managing experiments on the Space Station and Shuttle. Jacqueline currently owns her own firm, Inform Scientific, specializing in technical and medical writing and research program management. When she’s not writing, she is likely watching college football.

View Jacqueline Havelka's articles

  • Mcozy333

    Thank you Israel for your progressive approach to health care and cannabis

    • Dan Taylor

      I agree! 😍

  • Thank you for sharing. Israel should be commended for their approach – ahead of the curve. There is a lot of independent research coming out on the affects on ADHD as well. Hopefully the US will step up and look into this ad well.

    • Mike Brown

      Yes hopefully for my daughter’s sake and for the rest of the children out there.

  • Dan Taylor

    Great read! Truly one of God’s gifts ❤️️

  • Melody

    Disclaimer: I fully support the legalization of cannabis and have found it to be helpful in my daily life. However, I find this article to be problematic, as it perpetuates the misconception of autism as a disease in need of a cure. While many of us who are autistic have struggles, autism itself is not the problem. We just think differently and have unique needs, just like everyone else.

  • Adam Gordon
  • DAve Edwards

    I wish they had used a larger amount of children for this study.

  • DAve Edwards

    Original study says they also gave the children thc.

    • Bradley Higgins

      They also left out the part in the story where the autistic children were violent on themselves when given strictly CBD or any CBD products versus THC products alone.

      This piece is 100% support the perpetual lie that the Stanley Brothers started 12 years ago

      Here in Colorado at children’s hospital dealing with autistic children has also found the same thing to be true that CBD makes autistic children violence .

      High doses of THC allows the children to start talking and have cognitive motor skills and go back to school to a degree. This is done on THC with ZERO CBD.

  • Corey Gray

    The more I read about this, the more I think we would like to create a non-profit to provide cbd at cost or free to families that have children suffering from autism, MS or epilepsy.

    If you are reading this and you have a family member suffering, please write to me at

    We would love to help.


  • s m

    Orrin Devinsky, Daniel Friedman, and Siddhartha Nadkarni are all currently under criminal investigation by the Insurance Commissioner of NY for fraud. The investigation was referred after being reviewed by two investigators in the Attorney General’s Office.