Autism spectrum disorder is not an illness that will earn you a medical marijuana card in most states. Yet, parents are crying out for safe access and more research. Mothers like Mieko Perez (story below) claim that her son’s life is due to the success of medical cannabis. Others claim that marijuana helps ease some of the rage and self-harm associated with the disease.
In the early 2000s, cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo proposed the concept of endocannabinoid deficiency. According to Russo, certain diseases like fibromyalgia, migraine, and gastrointestinal issues are linked, and “display common clinical, biochemical and pathophysiological patterns”. These patterns have to do with irregularities in theendocannabinoid system, which is a large, underlying network of cell receptors in the body. The endocannabinoid system regulates everything from mood to sleep, to appetite, pain, the immune system, and plays a role in digestion.
In 2014, the concept of endocannabinoid deficiency was applied to autism. In a literature review of available research on cannabinoids and autism, authors Steele Clark Smith and Mark S. Wagner present plausible evidence that Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency play a part in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and make a call for clinical research.
One of the studies cited in the review showed that autistic children had significantly increased levels of the CB2 cannabinoid receptor in certain key regions of their body. This cell-receptor plays a key role in regulating certain elements of the immune system, like inflammatory response. Lead study authors Dario Siniscalo and Anne Sapone also found genetic links to immune abnormalities in autistic children when compared to healthy controls.
This research suggests that researching cannabinoid medicines is a worthwhile venture in the treatment of autism. In their review, Smith and Wagner summarize:
A growing body of evidence is accumulating that pinpoints the endocannabinoid system plays a role in such psychiatric disorders as anxiety, major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as well as developmental disorders, including the elusive autism spectrum disorder.
Managing symptoms with marijuana
One reason autism is such a medical conundrum is because autistic children experience a wide variety of symptoms that are difficult to connect. Some of the symptoms of autism include:
- Poor social skills, including lack of empathy, poor eye contact, and an inability to share
- Inability to verbally communicate, or repetitive use of language
- Anxiety, rage, self-harm
- Body rocking, or other repetitive self-soothing behaviors
- Sleep difficulties
Autism isn’t one of the disorders recognized by medical marijuana programs in most states. But, that doesn’t mean that parents aren’t out there trying. There’s a definite gap in medical cannabis research when it comes to autism spectrum disorder, but many parents report that marijuana has helped alleviate many of autism’s extreme symptoms, including obsessiveness, rage, lack of focus, and anxiety.
“A couple of weeks ago,” begins Judy, a mother of an autistic child with extreme obsessive compulsive behavior, “I pulled into the driveway and he came running out of the house, threw himself down on the hood of my car, said ‘I want you to kill me, I want you to run me down, I don’t want to live anymore. I can’t take this OCD anymore.’”
At the time, her son Ryan was 12-years-old. She turned to medical marijuana in desperation. “It’s like it just takes the edge off of his OCD. It’s not like the OCD goes away when he has his medicine, but his ability to cope with it changes.”
Patient success stories
The number of stories from parents treating their autistic children with medical marijuana is growing. While cannabis isn’t a cure for the disease, there’s anecdotal evidence that the plant can help relieve symptoms and prevent serious self-harm. Here are a couple of stories from parents who have taken their experience mainstream:
Mieko and Joey Perez
Mieko Perez sits on the Board of Directors for NORML Women’s Alliance. While passionate about marijuana reform overall, Perez truly gained first-hand experience about the benefits of medical cannabis when she began treating her autistic son with the herb. Perez’s son, Joey, had dropped to a mere 46 pounds prior to beginning treatment. “Within weeks,” tells ABC reporter Andrea Canning, “he relaxed, made sounds for the first time, and gained 38 pounds.”
According to Joey’s psychiatrist,
He was clearly starving, he had droopy eyes, he had very poor eye-contact. After he began the medical marijuana, he was very bright-eyed, smiling, and laughing, he was just a totally different boy.
Joey was once prone to aggressive behaviors, self-harm, and darting in and out. He was on 13 different prescription medications, and has been able to drop down to less than three since beginning cannabis treatment. Perez tells Good Morning America,
I saved my son’s life, and marijuana saved my son’s life. When a mother hears that their son is knocking on death’s doors, you will do anything to save your child’s life. The research that we need for this medical marijuana needs to be done and it needs to be done now.
Jeremy and Alex Echols
“When you’ve got no other options, are you honestly going to say no?” says Jeremy Echols. Jeremy’s son, Alex, is severely autistic. He developed autism and seizures due to a disease called tuberous sclerosis, in which small lesions develop on vital organs throughout the body. In Alex, those lesions developed mostly in the brain.
Alex’s case is not one to be taken lightly. Autism has left him unable to communicate, and he is prone to self-harm when he experiences rage or negative emotions. By the time Alex was five-years-old, his fits of rage became intensely self-directed. Fox 12 news reports:
He headbutted anything he could, bruising his forhead so badly his father said his blood would drain until his entire face was black and blue. They got him a helmet, swaddled him like a newborn, tried mood altering drugs, but Alex’s daily violent behavior became the Eugene family’s new normal.
The Echols finally made the difficult decision of putting him into a state-funded group home. “It was like we were throwing him away. Like we were just giving him to somebody else and just saying ‘sorry, buddy! You’re not part of the family anymore.”
That’s when the Echols turned to medical marijuana. “He went from hitting himself, bloodying his face. To, within an hour and a half, he would be playing with toys, using his hands. Something that was, at that time, almost unheard of.” Alex currently takes marijuana oil three times a week.
Autism has been a challenge to medical professionals and researchers for centuries. Yet, the brave voices of parents and new scientific discoveries are edging toward a prospective therapeutic approach. Now, symptoms of autism spectrum disorder are treated with a wide variety of anti-psychotic, anti-depressant, and mood-stabilizing drugs. The lack of viable treatment options for families and autistic patients makes research on more effective treatments for this debilitating syndrome a must.