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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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i am currently 16 years old, i was born with mild autism, but nobody ever told me, i used to fight alot with the other kid’s and get picked on alot, so my parents moved me out into the middle of nowhere about 20 miles from the nearest town, out in the woods on a dead end road, so far out highspeed internet doesn’t exist, we are on dialup, since we moved here about 6 years ago, my dad got disabled, and its too far to drive to anywhere to work, and at age 15 i decided to start growing pot since i live out in the middle of nowhere, i actually grew out an entire female plant before i ever even tried marijuana, when i first started smoking, right after having turned 16, it just kind of “hit me” i started thinking about things in my life, and why they are the way they are, and it hit me that i could be autistic, before i started smoking marijuana, i had no friends, none, nobody really liked me, i had never had a girl friend, since smoking marijuana i have been able to more “reason” with myself and know the right ways to handle a situation, i dont go around telling everyone i smoke pot like an average teen would, i just smoke usually once a day sometimes skip a day, and i have been getting better at being around people, its a gradual effect, but pot is helping me through this, i dont smoke pot then go to school high, i think while i am high, i can reason through the problems in my life, and act them out when i am sober the RIGHT way not the autistic way, and my grades have actually improved in school(im in 11th grade) for anyone who thinks pot makes you stupid, and since smoking pot, i have seen first hand all the other benefits it has in an every-day value, pot has helped me to be able to get along with all the people in my life more completely than i ever have before, and it really needs to be legalized to start putting it to work for others like me.

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