How would you feel as a father if you had to watch your son hitting his head against the wall time and again? Or as a mother, if you knew that at any moment your daughter could attack you for no reason? Thousands of parents in Israel are raising children on the autistic spectrum, children who suffer from disturbances in their social and communicative functioning. Some of those parents need to cope with additional disorders in their children, such as sleep issues, self-harm, or restlessness.
“One of my patients, A-, is a charming boy on the autistic spectrum. Among other things, he suffers from extreme restlessness. One day he came to me at the clinic, with his mother, and to my complete surprise he sat down on the chair opposite me, calm and collected. His behavior until that meeting had been full of fidgeting and sensory searching, so that he had great difficulty forming social interactions,” says Dr. Orit Stoller.
Dr. Stoller is an expert in pediatric neurology and child development, responsible for the young children in the ALUT center for autism at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center. Together with Prof. Mati Berkovitz, head of the Clinical Pharmacology Unit at Assaf Harofeh, she is heading research on how cannabis affects children on the autistic spectrum.
“When you’re confronted with something that dramatic, the first natural question is ‘How?’ Then I understood from the mother that she was treating him with cannabis that she’d obtained illegally. For years, my patients’ parents had been asking about cannabis and its effect on autism, and I used to say every time that it was nothing more than a treatment lacking scientific proof. Before that meeting with A-, I’d occasionally come across stories about the effect of medical cannabis on the behavior of children who were on the spectrum, but until that meeting I’d refused to believe any of it.”
Dr. Stoller recounts that the change in A-, about five years ago, left her stunned. It was a turning point for her. “I understood that I had two options. I could bury my head in the sand, or I could immerse myself in the topic. It quickly became clear to me that there was no research data involving autism and cannabis.”
Dr. Stoller, together with Prof. Mati Berkovitz, began researching the matter. They collected reports from parents who were treating their children with cannabis oil, and they examined how the plant affects the behavior of children on the spectrum. The first article by Prof. Berkovitz and Dr. Stoller is expected to appear soon in the scientific magazine Frontir.
Together, the center for autism and the unit for pharmacology and clinical toxicology performed a study, the first of its kind, collecting reports from 53 parents of autistic children aged 4 to 22 who were treated with cannabis oil for at least 30 days. The results showed, among other things, that among the parents who reported self-harm on the part of the patient, 67.6% reported an improvement after the consumption of cannabis, and among the patients who suffered from sleep disorders, 71.4% reported an improvement thanks to cannabis treatment.
“There is a significant need for deeper knowledge in this field, for understanding the long-term implications on cognition and development, for understanding whether cannabis consumption harms growth, and for regulation of the treatment itself,” says Dr. Stoller.
“I recently participated in the first international conference on medical cannabis, CannX. It was held in Brazil by Cann10, an Israeli company. At the conference, I lectured on Israel’s experience in using medical cannabis for children with autism. I had come to an international conference attended by hundreds of participants from the global cannabis industry – from the fields of science, business, agriculture, and technology – and I also wanted to learn from those who were ahead of me in my field,” says Dr. Stoller.
“To my surprise, I found mostly people who were in search of knowledge. I understood that the authority attending that conference was me of all people. We’re accustomed to thinking of ourselves as a small country, but in practice our influence on the world is much more meaningful than we think.
“I was drawn to the topic of medical cannabis by the desire to provide better, more professional service. I have no doubt that cannabis should be part of our arsenal of treatments. However, we must remember that cannabis is no wonder drug and certainly not suitable for everyone. We need to continue investigating the plant in order to know how to get the best out of it. The burden of proof is on us.”