But the lack of high-quality evidence and the legal status of marijuana in the United States, which varies from state to state, puts parents of children with severe ASD in a difficult position, and one that is potentially outside the law.
It remains illegal on a federal level.
Currently, the American Academy of Pediatricians opposes the legalization of marijuana for recreational or medical use, although they do support further research. However, the organization has updated their policy to include a “compassionate use” clause, which specifies that some children with life-limiting or debilitating diseases may benefit from cannabinoids and cannot wait through a “meticulous and lengthy research process.”
Susanne Duvall, PhD, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health and Science University, has studied some of the ethical problems surrounding medical marijuana treatment for children with ASD.
She says that parents and primary doctors or pediatricians need to be able to have open conversations about medical marijuana, even if it means informing parents that it could be illegal.
“I would argue that I’d rather have a patient comfortable enough that they are able to ask me these questions or ask their prescribing provider those questions so you can have an honest conversation about what’s known in the research, possible risks and benefits, what’s not known, in the case of this question, so that the information is on the table as opposed to it being a taboo subject,” she told Healthline.
And treating children with ASD also raises other important issues related to care.
“Something that’s important to consider is that a lot of these children with more severe presentations are nonverbal, so there are additional challenges any time you are making medical decisions for somebody who might struggle to communicate side effects or reactions that are happening,” said Duvall.
Roughly 1 in 59 children have ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that number has been increasing. In severe cases symptoms can include rage or aggression, and self-injurious behavior. It is in these most extreme cases, where medical marijuana is often sought out.
The general consensus is that there simply needs to be more research on whether medical marijuana is a safe and effective treatment for ASD.
“It’s really hard to inform and advise parents in the absence of any hard evidence to go on. That’s a main structural barrier that potentially could help provide some more empirical evidence either way,” said Duvall.