Cannabis and autism?

By Richard Shrubb

Cannabis may be used to treat symptoms associated with learning disabilities such as autism and ADHD. There is no hard science – just anecdote – at the moment so it may take quite some time before you find anything at your pharmacists …

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Cannabis user Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps used cannabis.

ADHD is associated with autism. Many who have the disability are on the autistic spectrum, though many with ADHD are not autistic. ADHD is a disability where you cannot concentrate and are hyperactive. People diagnosed with it are given high strength stimulants. Ritalin is a Class B drug and is almost as strong as cocaine!

Rumours abound that US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who has ADHD, was ‘self medicating’ when caught with a bhong after the 2008 Olympics. He has never admitted using it medically, and there is little evidence that a sedative that makes normal people lose their focus would help someone who has to work hard to focus in the first place!

Raising this rumour with an ADHD sufferer who smokes pot, they were unsurprised that Phelps has ADHD – many with ADHD are extremely bright and become high achievers if they conquer the issue. That person however only uses pot to allay their anxiety. They told me: “Having anxiety independent of the ADHD, the stimulant meds can unsurprisingly make that worse, so I’ll often use small amounts of cannabis (not enough to counteract the meds of course) to get that happy medium between productive and not strung out. ADHD comes with its own built in anxiety and many ADHD patients get relief from it simply by taking medication.”

Anxiety is a classic psychiatric symptom where cannabis can help. Cannabis calms!

Challenging Behaviour

Cannabis space cake“Challenging behaviour” is a common term for symptoms where people with autism get violent and do things that aren’t acceptable in ‘normal’ walks of life. I have a friend whose 36 year old son has the mental age of a 3 year old. Through understanding him and guiding him, she has ensured he only destroys his living room furniture once a month. It used to be once a week!

One family in Rhode Island, USA, resorted to calming cookies and tea to help their son tackle his challenging behaviour. They recounted one of his behavioural traits: “Pre-pot, J ate things that weren’t food. He chewed the collar of his T-shirts while stealthily deconstructing them from the bottom up, teasing apart and then swallowing the threads. His chewing become so uncontrollable we couldn’t let him sleep with a pajama top (it would be gone by morning) or a pillow (ditto the case and the stuffing). The worst part was watching him scream in pain on the toilet, when what went in had to come out.”

Other children I know on the spectrum resort to ‘self stimulation’ such as licking windows. As an outsider I bet you are laughing – in abstract these are very amusing issues. If your son was to eat his pillow, stuffing and all every night or get sent home from school having had a complete meltdown and freaking the teachers out on a regular basis? You would seek solutions as it isn’t very funny when it is happening to your own flesh and blood.

The kid who ate his pillows was given antipsychotic medication.  Such drugs are well known to be dangerous – I have been on them for 14 years and have all sorts of horror stories, not least that my liver is on the verge of packing up after taking them for so long. His family tried giving him “calming cookies” – you’d call them space cakes. These worked for a time but they eventually settled with calming tea – giving a new angle on the term ‘tea pot’… The family were blown away with the results:

“At one August parent meeting, his teacher excitedly presented his June-July ‘aggression’ chart. For  the past year, he’d consistently had 30 to 50 aggressions in a school day, with a one-time high of 300. The charts for June through July, by contrast, showed he was actually having days —sometimes one after another—with zero aggressions.”

With the other two families? Reality bites. Both are being watched by their local Social Services who would take the children into care in 5 minutes flat if they were to give them calming cookies. Fact is, marijuana is far too controversial in this day and age to mellow out your kid with it, no matter the positive results. The family in Rhode Island were scared stiff of being found out by their own Social Services for the very same reason so remained anonymous. You can imagine the Daily Heil’s response to a family being busted for that one!!!

In such situations you would broadside the courts and newspapers with good science? Speaking to Luxembourg Senator and medical marijuana expert Jean Colombera, he responds to the request for some hard science, “Autism treated with Cannabis is at the very beginning. There are not many references. I’m treating autistic patients with high CBD and try to assemble some clinical results.” He is looking at CBD in the way one would normally prescribe antipsychotics – as a calming agent.


Cannabis green teaAdults of normal mental age and independence can make their own choice in life. People with Asperger’s have autistic symptoms such as being socially disconnected, and having little empathy with other people. They tend to talk differently, and have a small number of interests. They will have normal, or above normal intelligence and will be able to make their own way through life.

One guy I know won’t open up until you talk about film making. Until you get onto film making he seems abstract and difficult to get through to. Talking about making movies? You wouldn’t be able to tell him apart from the next man in that field.

Social Services can try to persuade them to stop smoking pot but cannot sanction them. Anecdote suggests that cannabis could well be effective on this front. Someone who has led me onto this research, who has Asperger’s, suggested: “you might be able to get a group of London based aspies together, all talking shit and arguing, then watch as they all smoke a joint and turn into visibly more palatable dudes”.

Giving autistic people and others with learning disabilities cannabis may well resolve a lot of issues around their disability. It may calm them down and enable them to engage with the world. It would take a scientist with the balls of a prize bull to start research into this in the current UK climate of right wing press induced panic about cannabis. Other countries – Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands for instance – are more laid back about it. Their press accepts the medical benefits associated with marijuana. Will we see a Learning Disabilities Consultant Psychiatrist offering recipes for calming cookies in the next decade? Not likely!


Richard Shrubb

Richard Shrubb is a freelance journalist with a specific interest in medical science and sailing, for more info about Richard, see his web site and you can follow Richard on Twitter #Shrubberz


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  1. Despite there being no hard science, it’s highly likely that some with autism find cannabis or cannabinoids to be incredibly useful for one reason or another. It seems to treat the core symptoms of autism and, conveniently, also treats some of the other medical problems which are more common amongst people with autism.

  2. I don’t have a diagnosis of Aspergers, but there is certainly a continuum and I do have a diagnosis of ADHD and have always had traits in common with Aspergers. I’ll be forever grateful for a chance meeting with someone who thought ‘I was a bit autistic’ and persuaded me to give a bit of hash a go. I had a very rigid, straightjacketed mindset, and cannabis was the start of loosening that up and being able to see the world from a whole bunch of new perspectives and possibilities that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

    It’s worth adding that the other drug prescribed for ADHD is dexamphetamine, which is exactly what it sounds like, ie amphetamine – a Class B drug. I was diagnosed with ADHD a long time back and currently take dexamphetamine, as prescribed by my local GP. I can completely back up what the guy you mention in this article says. At the end of the day the
    meds wear off and the overactivity – mental and physical – returns. There are only two things which allow me to slow it down: sleeping pills or cannabis. As I grew up and lost contacts I fell back to the legal option, and of course I am now dependent on sleeping pills that don’t even make me sleep any more!

    • I know one of the issues around Zopiclone is it is highly addictive. Though not a benzodiazepine it has extremely similar issues. 5mg used to knock me out but I had a friend who had MS and was mildly sleepy after 40mg. There is a real need for a drug that slows you down with minimal side effects and CBD seems to be an answer. Very early days in testing but it may well be the answer you seek.

  3. all it did was make me able to hold a book for more than 5 mins and stopped me eating after that my parents were like no chance nd took me off it, i tried marijuana not long after 18…… beats everything i have ever tried 🙂 which isn’t that much but still 😛

  4. I can’t say, to be honest, that I have noticed any appreciable difference between the adult Aspies I know sober, and the same people after using cannabis. Maybe that’s because the more annoying ones who’d benefit refuse to use it.

    I have seen news clips of people giving their children “calming cookies” and them calming right down, but I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that everyone gets “calm”, not to mention unproductive, after using hash brownies. 😛 Maybe cannabis is better for you than ritalin, but if you’re against ritalin as a way of treating challenging behaviours because it messes with kids’ minds, then logically you have to oppose getting your kids high for the same reason.

    • Methylphenidate is a synthetic chemical that acts as a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor with debatable safety data not to mention misdiagnosis (common in the autism spectrum disorders) prescription trouble. In short cannabis is a natural non lethal alternative that I have no doubt will help some people, it’s weather they want the help or not (horses for courses). Everyone who wants to be high should; PFNC rules innit 😉

  5. People with Autism and ADHD are wrongfully treated by Social Services UK in Child Protection Matters Misuse of Drugs act 1985 – I’m personally effected by this and the SS are treating me A criminal and I’m really some-one people can trust in once they get to know me, I’m great with Children too and I don’t smoke around Children.
    I really hope I can find some-one with in depth Knowledge to help me with Negative People like the Social Services

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