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Can Marijuana Help Kids with Autism?

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This mom says giving her kid pot has made all the difference.


Gina Kaysen Fernandes: As the mother of an autistic child, Marie Myung-Ok Lee is navigating uncharted territory as she struggles to manage her son's condition. She has bravely come forward to share her son's battle with this mysterious disorder, and to discuss how medical marijuana has brought them both back from the brink of despair.

During what Marie calls the "dark phase," her son J had unpredictable mood swings that could erupt into fitful rages. Her 9-year-old would scream during lengthy tantrums, he refused to eat and threw his food on the floor. J broke plates, windows, and other household items as a way of expressing his pain and frustration. The family would hide out within the confines of their home until the darkness passed.

J's behavior disrupted his school performance and terrified the staff. "The teachers were wearing tae kwon do arm pads to protect themselves against his biting," Marie said. The school monitored J's daily outbursts on an "aggression chart" that documented as many as 300 episodes in one day that involved hitting, kicking, biting, or pinching another person.

With her son in crisis, Marie had no choice but to perform an intervention. But the only solution offered by child psychiatrists came in a pill bottle. "His school tried to force us to medicate him," says Marie, who feared the risk of dangerous side effects associated with commonly prescribed antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal. Many of the FDA-approved drugs on the market used to treat symptoms of autism have no proven safety track record for use in children.

Despite the unknown risks, more kids are using prescription drugs than ever before. The number of children on psychiatric meds has skyrocketed in recent years, according to reports in medical journals such as Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Prescription drug use is growing faster among children than the elderly and baby boomers. But when it comes to medicating kids with marijuana, the issue becomes taboo.

"There's no such thing as a harmless drug, but marijuana is much less harmful than other drugs," said Lester Grinspoon, M.D., a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Grinspoon is a leading expert in the field of medical marijuana, who has authored several books on the subject. "No one in the world has died from marijuana," insists Grinspoon, who has spent four decades researching the illicit drug.

Undeterred by the social stigma, Marie pursued this more natural approach to calm J's demons. After discussing her wishes with J's pediatrician, Marie decided to check out Marinol, a synthetic form of THC, which is the primary cannabinoid in marijuana. After fine-tuning J's dosage, she began hearing praises like, "J was a pleasure to have in speech class," instead of complaints about his violent episodes.

After a few months, J built up a tolerance to the drug and his unruly behavior returned. "The drawback of taking Marinol is that it's only THC. That's the most powerful cannabinoid, but it may not be the most relevant," said Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany. Earleywine says there are about 70 different cannabinoids in the marijuana plant, many of which have medicinal value. Marie decided to take a chance on the real deal.

All it took was a signed prescription and a background check for J to become the youngest person in Rhode Island to obtain a license for pot. After buying some marijuana-infused olive oil, Marie made a batch of pot cookies. That night, J ate half of one cookie and "he was tired and conked out," said Marie, who checked hourly on his sleep, "half-expecting some red-eyed ogre from Reefer Madness to come leaping out at us." To her relief, J slept soundly and appeared happy and mellow the next day.

Over the past four months, Marie has documented her son's progress in an online blog entitled, Why I Give My 9-Year-Old Pot, Part II. While she doesn't believe marijuana is a cure for autism, it "allows J to participate more fully in life without the dangers and sometimes permanent side effects of pharmaceutical drugs." Dr. Grinspoon has seen positive results with a number of his autistic patients who are undergoing pot therapy. "I can confidently say to a parent that marijuana relieves some types of pain. It's not going to hurt them if you use it responsibly," Grinspoon says. Ingesting the drug works better because the effects can last up to eight hours. "A little goes a long way," says Earleywine, who reminds parents that the drug can take up to an hour and a half to kick in, "so wait a little while before administering any more."

While a growing number of distressed parents are turning to the herbal remedy, many moms with autistic kids are skeptical. "I feel it does more harm than good," says Trish, the mother of a 7-year-old boy with autism. "You are sedating the child, not treating the cause of the rage." Trish believes that medicating kids with pot is a cop-out. "Nobody said parenting was going to be easy, or that the solution to every problem is to get our children stoned."

The mainstream medical community shuns the subject, and the government refuses to fund any research that would legitimize marijuana use in treating autism or aggression disorders. "Marijuana is a very loaded subject," says Cara Natterson, M.D., a pediatrician and mother of two. "As a parent and as a pediatrician, I feel a responsibility to know that what I am putting into a child -- mine or someone else's -- is safe and tested."

The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes the legalization of marijuana, but does support further research into the potential medical benefits of cannabis. "We need to make sure the treatment is safe -- we haven't done that," Natterson adds. The doctor can sympathize with parents who desperately want to help their child. "But wanting to advocate for your child and making sure your child is safe are two different things," Natterson said.

Marie is confident that she has made the right choice when she sees J's transformation. "He doesn't look stoned. He just looks like a happy little boy."

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124 comments so far | Post a comment now
Kristen November 3, 2009, 4:18 AM

For any parent to judge this women, I tell them to go live with her and walk in her shoes for a few weeks. You have NO CLUE what it is like to live with an autistic child and every one of them is different. This child also has gut problems and lives in pain, if marijuana relieves that pain and allows him to lead a more normal and interactive life then I say good for this mother for doing all she can to help her child. I think marijuana is a far more natural choice than the very hard core drugs they are putting kids on these days.

chris November 3, 2009, 5:12 AM

I understand this mother is trying her best to do for her son and I’m glad that she is getting good results with the marijuana. My concern is that if he stays in a state of “stoned bliss” how are they going to properly evaluated his true improvements. If he stops the use of marijuana, will he go right back to be uncontrolable? What happens as he get older and bigger and is still uncontrolable? I think the use of the marijuana is more of a mask to the problem then a soluation. Trust me, I have a son who has been diagonised with adhd and so far we have not put him on medication (which I don’t want to)so I understand the debate of medicating or not. I’m just really concerned about the long term effects of not doing more now to controll him than dealing with it when he is too strong and big for you to do it later.

Kris November 3, 2009, 5:45 AM

Chris, your post has SOME valid points. But when you are in a state of crisis like this family was then you have to get it under control and worry later about the future. Now that the situation is in control and the child is doing well they can get more help from other places and maybe take him off the marijuana gradually and see what happens. No offense here but I highly doubt you can compare adhd to out of control autism. Yes you have to make the choice on whether to medicate your child but I don’t think your situation was as dire or out of control.

Wendi November 3, 2009, 6:11 AM

I think that this is such a great idea. My stepson is PDD Autisic and let me tell you there have been times where his rages are just scary. I say if this is working for the mom then good for her. We tried all those drugs that the prescribe and let me tell you some are really bad. I would much rather say my kid is high and happy on pot than put those crazy drugs in him. They don’t allow the child to be themselves at all. Sometimes the side affects alone make things much worse. At least with pot, you know that your child is not going to have any weird side affects and that there is no long term damage. Really this is an awsome discovery and kudos to the mom for trying it and I hope she keeps up the good work

chris November 3, 2009, 7:00 AM

Kris - you are right…I wasn’t trying to say that adhd is anything like autisium and your also right that you need to do what is right while you are living thru it now. I was only trying to point out that while this is working now, they need to continue to seek out the proper help for him so that this is a managable situation in the future also.

Terry  November 3, 2009, 10:58 AM

I would first like to say that I think Gina Kaysen is a wonderful woman and mother. I was a child who was treated with medical marijuana. I am not autistic, however I was diagnosed with severe ADHD , and anger management/rage control issues. My mom, like Gina got frustrated and concerned about the “zombie” effect, as well as side effects of these prescription drugs that marijuana does not have. Yes there are side effects from marijuana as well. The side effects, however are just not as severe. I am now a well educated, functioning member of society, who is not as angry or distracted as I believe I would have been without medical marijuana. As far as the cop-out comment goes, I think it is a cop-out not to try EVERY means a mother can to make her child well. I applaud Gina Kaysen Fernandes for attempting to make her child well by any means.

TMT November 3, 2009, 11:00 AM

Medicinal marijuana and Hemp oil have been known and proven to heal various ailments. I watched the movie “Run From The Cure” included are testimonials and actual proof that the Hemp Oil irradicated cancer! Amazing, I would be willing to try anything if I thought I had cancer. I agree these parents were at their wits end and were desperate, just raising a child that doesn’t have autism is one of the hardest tasks to assume in one’s life. I believe that pharmaceuticals damage more deeply and irreversibly than all natural or holistic drugs. Case in point my mom, she had nervous breakdowns from her daugther passing away and her Mom at the same time. From that point until about 10 years ago Dr.’s perscribed her all sorts of pain killers, and uppers for chemical inbalance, valium for relaxation. This went on for about 20 years of her life. She wasn’t able to get out of bed for most of my teenage years! She was really not well and her moods were not improved with all of this medicine. Now she is 72 and in Nursing facility because she is in the final stages of alzheimer’s disease. That is what pharmaceuticals do for you. Could her life now be different if she would’ve been willing to try something different such as medicinal marijuana or this refined hemp oil? I don’t know and we will never know with my mom. Blessings to this family who is willing to try to find out.

Gina Kaysen Fernandes November 3, 2009, 11:56 AM

Terry- I’m glad you’ve found this article helpful. Just to clarify, I’m a writer for momlogic, not the subject of this story. Marie Myung-Ok Lee is the mother treating her autistic son with medical marijuana. For more information about Marie, this story is linked to her blog. Thanks for your feedback!

tennmom November 3, 2009, 2:40 PM

She won’t receive any judgement from me. Natural remedies are sometimes best.

SlackerSlayer November 3, 2009, 2:53 PM

The institutionalized banning of the best medicine man has ever known is for one reason and one reason only, profits from other means. In every society from the isolated tribes in deep jungles to the high priced runway models have all had one thing in common, some form of intoxicant. To ban any of them is benefiting those with not so humanitarian goals.

In the USA, your bill of rights number nine says it all, “The enumeration in the constitution (18th & 21st enumerated right) of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”.

All intoxicants are your legal right to use. To be desperate enough over the damage caused by pharmaceuticals in vaccines, and this woman finds a perfect compound for her child, why would anyone speak out against her? I know why, propaganda and brainwashed into thinking ‘pot’ is bad m-kay. Shut up morons and let people, all of us, have their lives and liberty back.

“Take it from me, bring it back” SlackerSlayer youtuber.

August November 3, 2009, 4:36 PM

Poor woman, the US Legal System WILL DESTROY HER NOW! Her son will be thrown in a prison-like institution, drugged up to a Zombie level and kept in a straight jacket.

Farm Boy November 3, 2009, 6:52 PM

God gave us all the seed bearing plants in Genesis 1:29.

What man has the authority to deny that which God gave as a gift?

childsadvocate November 3, 2009, 9:29 PM

Sometimes parents have to be become their child’s advocate & maybe it isn’t always conventional. Parents do it because they believe it is in the best interest of their child & they because have run out of all other alternative options. It seems to me the mother did a wonderful job! As long as the child continues to be closely monitored by his physician they can modify his treatment plan as needed as he gets older. My son doesn’t have the same illness but let’s just say sometimes you don’t have to walk a mile in another mother’s shoes to understand what their going through. Good luck & may God bless their family.

Steve  November 4, 2009, 12:45 AM

I’ve personally smoked pot for most of my life, and I’m 46 years old.

I have no noticeable ill effects, especially since changing to a vaporiser and I use it daily, for no other reason than the mild relaxation it affords me.

My youngest son, managed to get hold of a large block of very high grade Hashish as a toddler and chewed it up, consuming about ten grams. This is a substantial amount actually and even though I knew he’d be safe, we monitored him closely, but apart from a long sleep and a silly smile before that, he suffered no ill effects. now twelve years later, we can assert with confidence he is not only 100% normal, he is a remarkable and gifted child in sports, education and social skills. Not saying it is a result of the cannabis but it certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt him any.

People who repeat the long disproved rubbish that Cannabis can harm a person, bore me beyond words. They have NO idea of what they are talking about.

missy November 4, 2009, 3:43 AM

Our son is a bright kid who exhibited all the range of behaviors as described above. (He had a horrible effect from the DPT shot at 8 months. I think that was a factor.) Anyway, he smokes and he’s better for it. He’s getting on with his life and is independent. He’s 24.

Anonymous November 4, 2009, 4:58 AM

I know this post is more about the issue of this child and pot but I would like to point out something that no one else has mentioned. I don’t understand how your child was even in the mainstream of school if he was so aggressive. In one day, he had 300 fits of rage? He kicked, hit, punch and bite people…I don’t think this child should have even been in a classroom.

Anonymous November 4, 2009, 9:42 AM

get your kid stoned, good one.

Gianvela November 4, 2009, 12:03 PM

Nature has provides us with the cure for every health problem we may have. seek knowledge.

nubird November 5, 2009, 7:45 AM

Research has shown that marijuana reduces the effects of Alzheimer’s by reducing the inflammation at the cellular level. Perhaps, it is having a similar effect on autistic children, reducing the inflammation in their brains. By treating the child with marijuana, the mother is doing the best thing for her child: putting out the fire in his head.
Contrary to a previous post, the symptoms are being treated with the use of marijuana, not with pharmaceuticals.
Real studies need to be done, but meanwhile don’t deny treatment to those who need it.
And, for those who think that the child is stoned, consider this: wouldn’t you have a silly smile on your face if someone put out the fire in your brain?
He is not stoned - he is relieved, just like a cancer patient reducing pain.
How many autistic children have been cured by conventional medicine?

Anonymous November 5, 2009, 6:58 PM

party on autistic kids!

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