MODI’IN, ISRAEL — When Noa Shulman came home from school, her mother, Yael, sat her down to eat, then spoon-fed her mashed sweet potatoes — mixed with cannabis oil.
Noa, who has a severe form of autism, started to bite her own arm. “No sweetie,” Yael gently told her 17-year-old daughter. “Here, have another bite of this.”
Noa is part of the first clinical trial in the world to test the benefits of medicinal marijuana for young people with autism, a potential breakthrough that would offer relief for millions of afflicted children — and their anguished parents.
There is anecdotal evidence that pot’s main non-psychoactive compound — cannabidiol or CBD — helps children in ways no other medication has. Now this first-of-its-kind scientific study is trying to determine if the link is real.
Israel is a pioneer in this type of research. It permitted the use of medical marijuana in 1992, one of the first countries to do so. It’s also one of just three countries with a government-sponsored medical cannabis program, along with Canada and the Netherlands.
Conducting cannabis research is also less expensive here and easier under Israeli laws, particularly compared to the United States, which has many more legal restrictions.
Autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders, affecting 1 in 68 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its debilitating symptoms include impaired communication and social skills, along with compulsive and repetitive behaviors. Autism typically emerges in infancy or early childhood.
Advocates for combating the disorder are calling attention to it by declaring April National Autism Awareness Month.
Noa’s mother has to feed and bathe her and change her diapers. Noa is unable to speak and often behaves aggressively. Yael, a mother of three with a full-time job in this city halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has tried to find caretakers to help, but they don’t last long.
Only two medications have been approved in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration to treat the symptoms of autism. Both are antipsychotic drugs that are not always effective and carry serious side effects.
When Noa took them, “she was like a zombie,” Yael said. “She would just sit there with her mouth wide open, not moving.”
Noa is part of a study that began in January at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. It involves 120 children and young adults, ages 5 to 29, who have mild to severe autism, and it will last through the end of 2018.
Adi Aran, the pediatric neurologist leading the study, said nearly all the participants previously took antipsychotics and nearly half responded negatively. Yael desperately pushed Aran and other doctors to prescribe cannabis oil after a news report aired about a mother who illegally obtained it for her autistic son and said it was the only thing that helped him.
“Many parents were asking for cannabis for their kids,” Aran said. “First I said, ‘No, there’s no data to support cannabis for autism, so we can’t give it to you.’”
He said that changed about a year ago after studies in Israel showed that cannabis helped children with epilepsy by drastically reducing seizures and improving behavior for those who also have autism. Epilepsy afflicts about 30% of autistic children, Aran said.
Mounting anecdotal reports of autistic children who benefited from marijuana also led Aran to pursue more scientific testing. After seeing positive results in 70 of his autistic patients in an observational study, Aran said, “OK we need to do a clinical trial so there will be data.”