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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
Rita November 5, 2009, 11:50 PM

As soon as I saw the title of this article, I thought, “OOH this is going to be fun!” I’m used to most members of momlogic being uptight.

I’m impressed by the people who have commented on this post being educated about marijuana and it’s benefits.

And you know what else? If the government were to legalize and TAX marijuana, our economic problems would be over. Problem solved.

Kudos to the parents who have given their child herbal remedies. Has it worked for everyone? I’d love to know.

Jason November 6, 2009, 12:37 PM

Recent study has shown that Marijuana causes the growth of white matter in the brain which has benifits like strengthening memory but more study should be completed..people should read more facts and not just rely on outdated stereotypes from the 1920’s

mike November 8, 2009, 4:46 PM

As the years pass, and I continue to use cannabis for pain management, I have noticed that I no longer get high, instead I just don’t feel my pain.

The brain is geared to accept Cannabis, so why fight what nature has provided, it works for so many uses, I am glad it works for this kid as well.

MerrieWay November 8, 2009, 11:36 PM

Administering psychotropic drugs to kids is tampering with a growing brain: and playing a child’s future. Very difficult decisions to make.
Marijuana has been linked to schizophrenia in young adults, who started using it at an early age. I would check that out before going in that direction.

Jeff November 10, 2009, 12:15 PM

MerrieWay, please provide a link or more info explaining how marijuana is linked to schizophrenia in young adults.

Don November 23, 2009, 11:39 AM


Jessica November 23, 2009, 1:32 PM

This is a means of control. Not a way of fixing a problem. This is completely unethical. The child does not have the capacity to make a decision whether or not they would like to continue this form of “therapy” (if you would even call it that). It think this behavior should stop immediately!

Anonymous November 23, 2009, 7:04 PM

As a mother of a 10 year old boy who has Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism), ADHD and is what is called HFA (high functioning autistic) I would ask all of you who have never had to make the choice of giving your child pills that are sold on the “black market” for illegal use to keep your opinions to yourselves. After you’ve tried the special schools, the therapies, you’ve cleaned fesces off of the wall for the 1000th time, you’ve held him while he sobbed because none of the other kids want to play with him…once just one of you who question this mother has had to look at your child and tell him or her that they have to accept themselves this way and see the heart break in their eyes, then please, by all means tell those of us who LIVE with this every day that you wouldn’t jump at the chance of a safer alternative. I had no idea this was an alternative and I will be talking to my doctor about it at our next appointment to find out more.

Merlin November 24, 2009, 10:47 AM

Good for this Mom, finding something safe that works. As to the other prejudiced comments, do a bit a real research. And just because the kid ate a brownie doesn’t mean he is going to be Stoned into oblivion, just like having one or two drinks doesn’t get you roaring stumbling down drunk. Cannabis was used for thousands of years to successfully treat a variety of ills and problems all over the world, until the Bigots in this country declared a war based on pure lies, watch the Government propaganda film Reefer Madness for a taste of the Government insanity that still rules political minds for over 70 years. The Truth is out there IF you look for it.

Tara November 28, 2009, 9:18 AM

“Nobody said parenting was going to be easy, or that the solution to every problem is to get our children stoned.” What a incredibly stupid and thoughtless comment. The child was prescribed a drug by a medical doctor. If that drug was anything other than something marijuana related, I’m sure Trisha wouldn’t have any comments about the kid getting “stoned.” It’s simply social prejudice and ignorance.

Also I don’t believe the woman in this article every claimed that the drug would solve any and all problems.

SomeonesMom March 28, 2010, 10:50 PM

My son is autistic and began smoking pot last year (unbeknownst to me). It is not what I would have wanted him to get involved in but it has certainly helped him become more relaxed and sociable. He is now 18 and a senior in a regular high school, for the first time he has had friends, eats lunch with others on a regular basis (something he had not done in the previous years of schooling, even with many cousins going to the same school) he preferred to be alone, spent time mumbling to himself and walking around the playground in younger years. At the first parent/teacher conferences of the year in October 2009, the teachers even remarked about how changed he is “he came out of his shell”, speaks in class, participates, etc…It made me happy but I could not tell them why… If marijuana use helps him live a more “regular” life I don’t see the harm in it, as long as he does not abuse it. We talk about drug abuse and alcohol abuse alot as I do not want him to get into any of that. He is very open with me and not as secretive as your usual teen boy. I try to keep an open mind and have learned that works better than being judgmental. As long as he knows I will not react negatively right off the bat, he is pretty open with me. Also may have to do with the fact that he is not a good liar at all, you can see it on his face and even if I do believe him he will feel guilty and later tell me the truth. He is high functioning and has been in regular schooling all his years with the school only giving him more leeway in tardiness because it does take him more time to get to and from each class. I don’t care what anyone else says I would rather have him use marijuana than on any pharmacuetical drug…

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Concerned Dad May 16, 2010, 8:31 PM

It’s amazing to me how many of you just assume that parents don’t use “safe” medications before trying out medical marijuana. After going through Ativan, Valium, Risperdal, and a bunch of other mainstream medications, we weren’t just okay with trying marijuana - we were eager to do so.

Unfortunately in our case, it was too little too late. I only wish we’d known it was an option a year ago. Maybe our son would still be in our home. Now the facility he’s in won’t even consider using marijuana to treat his rage.

Want to see what rage looks like in an autistic child? Still concerned that marijuana is more dangerous than severe self-mutilation? Please, by all means, go to and then get back on your soap box.

Those of you who are accepting of this woman’s story, I applaud you for thinking for yourselves in a society that disdains such actions.

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Brandon Bachman May 27, 2010, 11:02 PM

None. Not that I know of, anyway. I always believed, at least a little bit, that pot wasn’t all bad. THough, I would rather digest it than smoke it for the sake of preserving the integrity of my lungs; I live in a household with two cigarette smokers and it’s no fun breathing that crap in.

But after reading this, I think I may consider a treatment involving hemp oil just to see if it’ll improve me a little bit. My mother tried everything but this, and over time I grew out of some of the (more violent) things that I use to do as a child, and thankfully so.

I also agree with the profit bit. Hemp’s natural, it works, and hell, has less side-effects than your common proscription. But pot’s illegal for the sheer fact it cuts into profits. Much like why you’ve never heard of the “Miracle fruit”, Synsepalum dulcificum, because for at least fifteen minutes after injesting, makes things taste sweeter. You can actually enjoy a lemon with it.

And incorporated into foods, can make certain undesirable foods taste better, as well. But the sugar industry won’t hear of it. Know why? Guess.

stephen June 1, 2010, 12:54 AM

i am a teenager, i havent been diagnosed but im pretty sure i have low or mild spectrum autism, i dont see the point in going to a doctor becoz all youll get it prescribed medication…instead.. i smoke pot on a regular basis, it helps alot with anger,depression social skills and my speech is no longer stutters and blurs.

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