Parents of some autistic children report that cannabis eases behavioral problems more effectively than conventional pharmaceuticals. Their anecdotal evidence should be taken seriously by medical researchers.
Autism is one of a group of conditions known as pervasive developmental disorders. This mysterious disability, first described and named more than 60 years ago, is characterized by striking emotional and cognitive isolation and detachment.
Autistic children are characterized by their apparent inability to form human relationships, abnormal or absent speech, and an unusually limited range of activities and interests. It is estimated that 3-6 out of every 1000 children in the United States has autism, about three quarters of them are boys, and the number of cases appears to be rising. It is not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting of autism, a real increase in the prevalence, or both.
While symptoms of autism often occur in the first months of life, they may be disregarded at first, but by the age of two or three it is clear that something is seriously wrong. Autistic children show little interest in others, children or adults. They do not communicate
experiences and there is little if any spontaneous or imaginative play; instead they prefer monotonous, solitary activities. They may spend hours performing ritualistic repetitive motions. They can be fascinated by one limited subject or activity to the exclusion of all
others and they are sometimes violent in their resistance to efforts to change the focus of their attention. They appear to fear novelty and may explode in rage when faced with change.
Many autistic children are hypersensitive to minor noises, smells and physical sensations, and some are hyperactive, impulsive, aggressive and self-destructive. They may throw tantrums in response to apparently trivial frustration, repeatedly bite themselves, hit themselves with their fists, or strike their heads against a wall. Their language develops slowly and in an odd
way, making them unintelligible; some do not speak at all.
There is no cure for autism, nor is there “one-size-fits-all” treatment. Treatment options include behavior and communication therapies, educational therapies and drug therapies. Our interest here is in exploring the possibility of a new drug therapy.
Drugs have a place in treating autistic symptoms, but their uses are limited. Antipsychotic drugs and mood stabilizers may help autistic patients who repeatedly injure themselves. The older conventional antipsychotic drugs have serious side effects on body movements. The novel or atypical drug risperidone (Risperdal) has shown a glimmer of promise in recent research. Anticonvulsants may be useful in suppressing explosive rage and calming severe anxiety. About 20% of autistic people have epileptic seizures, and some researchers have suggested that unrecognized partial complex seizures, which cause changes in consciousness but not muscular convulsions, are one source of autistic behavior disturbances.
In several studies, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been found to relieve depression and anxiety and reduce compulsive ordering, collecting, and arranging. Unfortunately, little is known about the long-term effects of drugs in autistic children, and no known drug has any effect on the underlying lack of capacity for empathy and communication.
A Mother’s Report
With the explosive growth of interest in exploring the medicinal capacities of marijuana, some courageous parents, concerned about the toxicity of the above mentioned drugs, and desperate to find pharmaceutical means of relieving their children of some of the harsh symptoms of autism, have been experimenting with oral doses of cannabis. The following anecdote was provided by Marie Myung-Ok Lee who teaches at Brown University. She is the author of the novel Somebody’s Daughter and is a winner of the Richard Margolis award for social justice reporting.
“My son J, who is nine years old, has autism. He’s also had two serious surgeries for a spinal cord tumor and has an inflammatory bowel condition, all of which may be causing him pain, if he could tell us. He can say words, but many of them don’t convey what he means.
“J’s school called my husband and me in for a meeting about J’s tantrums, which were affecting his ability to learn. Their solution was to hand us a list of child psychiatrists. Since autistic children like J can’t exactly do talk therapy, this meant sedating, antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal (risperidone).
“As a health writer and blogger, I was intrigued when a homeopath suggested medical marijuana. Cannabis has long documented effects as an analgesic and an anxiety modulator. Best of all, it is safe. A publication by the Autism Research Institute described cases of reduced aggression, with no permanent side effects.
“After a week on Marinol, which contains a synthetic cannabinoid, J began garnering a few glowing school reports. But J tends to build tolerance to synthetics, and in a few months, we could see the aggressive behavior coming back. One night, at a medical-marijuana patient advocacy group, I learned that the one cannabinoid in Marinol cannot compare to the 60 in marijuana the plant.
“Rhode Island, where we live, is one of 14 states where the use of medical marijuana is legal. And yet, I hesitated. Now we were dealing with an illegal drug, one for which few evidence-based scientific studies existed precisely because it is an illegal drug. But when I sent J’s doctor the physician’s form that is mandatory for medical marijuana licensing, it came back signed. We underwent a background check, and J became the state’s youngest licensee.
“The coordinator of our medical marijuana patient advocacy group introduced us to a licensed grower, who had figured out how to cultivate marijuana using a custom organic soil mix. The grower left us with a month’s worth of marijuana tea, glycerine, and olive oil — and a cookie recipe. We paid $80.
“We made the cookies with the marijuana olive oil, starting J off with half a small cookie. J normally goes to bed around 7:30 p.m.; by 6:30 he declared he was tired and conked out. As we anxiously peeked in on him, half-expecting some red-eyed ogre from Reefer Madness to come leaping out at us, we saw instead that he was sleeping peacefully.
"When J decided he didn’t like the cookie any-more, we switched to the tea. After two weeks, we noticed a slight but consistent lessening of aggression. Since we started him on his ‘special tea,’ J’s face, which is sometimes a mask of pain, has softened. He smiles more. For the last year, his individual education plan at his special-needs school was full of blanks because he spent his whole day in an irritated, frustrated mess. Now, April’s report shows real progress, including “two community outings with the absence of aggressions.”
“The big test has been a visit from Grandma. The last time she came, J hit her. This time, she remarked that J seems calmer. As we were Usually, his sleep is preparing for a trip to the park, J disappeared, and we wondered if he was going to throw one of his tantrums. Instead, he returned with Grandma’s shoes, laying them in front of her, even carefully a