Talk to a mother whose son is suffering autism, and you will know that this mental disorder comes with true grief to the patient’s close ones. A family with an autistic member is a family that has to endure the daily scenes of their loved one getting into episodes of unexpected violence, severe self-aggression, and the idea that their young son or little sister will never get to live normally due to their mental disorder. First off, we need to be clear on what autism is. Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a term used to describe what are in fact a range of mental disorders affecting brain development, resulting in a number of symptoms, prime among which are challenges with social interaction, repetitive behavior, speech impediment, lack of nonverbal communication, and often very unique strengths and differences. The variation of genetic and environmental causes and influences to autism result in a wide range of autism disorders. Usually, the most obvious sign of autism tend to appear in the early years of infancy, as the patient is between two and three years old, and the symptoms sometimes make themselves apparent as early as 18 months from birth and from that age a child can be diagnosed with autism. Among the most common medical and health conditions that tend to come hand-in-hand with autism are frequent seizures, sleep turbulence, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and severe anxiety
When we talk about autism, we talk in the main part of patients who are in their childhood years. It was estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that autism prevails by a rate of 1 in every 68 children in the US. Based on gender, the distribution of autistic patients would go 1 in every 42 boys, and 1 in 189 girls. While these children might be receiving autism services as a part of their schooling, 50,000 autistic teens go into adulthood every year, losing their school-based services. Around one-third of patients with autism go on with their lives no being able to talk, and about the same portion suffer one or more intellectual disabilities, although many autism patients actually show exceptional levels of intelligence and talent.
The most commonly prescribed medications for autism are Risperidone, known by its brand name Risperdal, and Aripiprazole, known as Abilify. These drugs, although might reduce irritability and calm down self-harming behavior and episodes of aggression, they pose significant threats to a child’s health. Among the side effects, these two medications tend to cause are diabetes, weight gain, often excessive, gynecomastia (which is a case where a male would experience breast growth), movement disorders, and heart problems.
Because the main patient base of this particular disorder is constituted of children, any talk about the use of cannabis, a much safer alternative to the conventionally prescribed drugs, is viewed as a lost case and has been known to spark controversy. Because of this sensitivity towards the issue, medical research concerning treating autistic children with doses of cannabis has been intentionally marginalized. Whereas you can find today hundreds of medical papers verifying marijuana’s ability to cure a multitude of diseases and disorders, cannabis treatment for autism comes at a shortage. However, positive anecdotal evidence for the highly desired results of cannabis treatment for autistic children is in abundance, as we will come to see.
The issue of cannabis treatment for autism first came to the lights and gained fame when the story of a 10-year-old boy called Sam was covered by the media back in 2010. Sam, who lived with his mom, dad, and younger sister in Northern California, was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. His father tells how he would hold him in his arms and sit there for an hour crying about the state his son is in. After Sam was prescribed Risperdal, he gained around 20 pounds in no time, and with that weight gain, he became tougher for his father to handle. At that time they started having thoughts f getting him institutionalized. Of course, this being a tormenting decision for both his parents, they started searching for alternatives, until they came across the idea of using cannabis to treat him. They told their pediatrician about their plan, and they managed to get a recommendation from a medical marijuana doctor.
Sam’s father started to grow cannabis in the backyard of the house, and from it, he made hash, which is a concentrated form of the THC in marijuana which could be said to be a solid form of cannabis oil, which is also a THC concentrate. They tell how the first dose Sam got turned him into a whole other person. The obsessiveness and rage that had lived with him for more than six years were gone, and Sam was finally acting normal. The father started giving him a small daily dose which he would put inside a piece of melon or bread and let Sam eat it, and after 20 minutes of taking the dose, the kid would be 180 degrees different. He started becoming calm, social, and finally happy.
“It’s incredible to see a child go from being non-communicative to achieving a significant improvement in quality of life—for both the child and his family," said Dr. Giovanni Martinez, a clinical psychologist in Puerto Rico who has been researching the therapeutic benefits of marijuana, particularly cannabis oil, for cases of autism. He recalls one child he treated who had autism, who after receiving a twice-daily dose of hemp oil for a few days was able to utter his first words. After three weeks of cannabis oil treatment, the child went from being completely non-verbal to developing remarkable language skills.
In 2012, Huffington Post reported what was allegedly the first study that identifies how natural endocannabinoids, the substances our bodies produce that are similar to the cannabinoids found in cannabis, affect the sections of our brain responsible for movement, emotions, and several other functions. The findings of that research verified to a large degree the anecdotal evidence of marijuana’s adequacy in treating several symptoms that are characteristic of ASD, major and most common among which is the fragile X syndrome.
Daniele Piomelli of UC Irvine and Olivier Manzoni of the French national research agency INSERM were the leaders of the study. The team discovered that endocannabinoids appear to not only be essential for the regulation of normal social behavior but are very possibly vital in fixing the dysfunctional behavior that accompanies many forms of ASD. “The endocannabinoids offer hope that one could—by interfering particularly with their destruction and by boosting their activity—normalize social behavior in children with autism," remarked Piomelli.
Up until today, the anecdotal evidence of marijuana’s effectiveness in the treatment of autism surpasses the scientific evidence, and that is due to the inflexibility of the legal and medical systems we have which hinder any attempts at the thorough research of the possibilities of using marijuana to treat children with autism. However, the anecdotal evidence and the parents’ testimonials about the effectiveness of cannabis oil and other marijuana extracts in treating autistic children have become too overwhelming. “Anecdotes should not be dismissed,” said Piomelli. “An anecdote is a pointer. It’s something that suggests something needs to be either proven or disproven.”