The debate about whether using marijuana to treat the symptoms of autism, is a good idea or an atrocious one, is tainted by the rather arbitrary designation of it as an illegal substance. Parents who treat their child with the substance, get painted as lazy and selfish individuals, sacrificing their children to an under-researched and under-ground option instead of taking the “tried and true” safer options. Those promoting marijuana use in the context of autism are seen as corrupting the genuine search for answers to the mysteries of autism, just to provide a defence for their existing drug habits.
So I’m going to take a step back, and I ask you to do the same should you choose to comment on this post. Deal with the facts, and put aside conspiracy theories and moralised positions that come from reactions to the word “marijuana”. Think of it as “substance XYZ” if it helps.
(I should say that it’s not just those anti marijuana use, who get carried away with the over-heated rhetoric and conspiracy theories. There are lunatics in every movement, and the pro-cannabis team have their fair share. In fact, some of their out-spoken members are so extreme and obsessive that they are very good at turning people away from their cause from the first mention. The obsessive amongst them are held up as examples of what marijuana consumption does to your brain: Your reasoning and communication is affected, and your constant focus is on securing the source of your next fix.)
There is growing appreciation on a global scale, of the (non-recreational) benefits of marijuana. The research feeding that understanding though, faces barriers to funding because of its legal category, and because of the arguably limited profit from its medicinal use (it is, after all, a freely grown and widely available plant). Without adequate research, the problem of isolating which of the very large number of components in marijuana are helping to ease the symptoms of autism (and the consequences of living with autism), remains a particularly significant problem, that often leads to people preferring use of the naturally occurring variants which haven’t been stripped of certain properties the way that medical marijuana often is.
The way in which marijuana is delivered into the body also often clouds the issues (pun intended). Smoking it is neither the most effective nor safest option; vapour and digestion are better. Often the debates get caught up in images of children puffing on a joint, which is un-necessary and unhelpful. Educating users about the risks, benefits, and methods of getting the substance safely and effectively into the body, is hampered by its illegality. Even when medical marijuana is made available through prescription, some families feel too stigmatised to publicly seek out and acquire it through the safest and correct channels; preferring a clandestine approach to treating their child in a way that supposedly protects their child and themselves from governmental scrutiny (though such an approach has obvious and serious risks attached).
I don’t want to travel too far down the road of questioning its overall illegality or the current controls on its otherwise legal usage. I think the more interesting and important questions lie around its purported benefits, and the question of at what point in a treatment plan should marijuana become an option for autistic people. I admit that the issue of illegality and the benefits of its use, cannot be ultimately separated out: What’s the point of knowing its great if no one can get their hands on it. But the primary question must be whether it is great at all; once that is established, the question of illegality would start to respond more to match those benefits (which is a trend we’re already seeing.)
So how can it assist with autism?
It’s important to point out that it is not a cure for autism, it alleviates symptoms of autism. But considering that autism is defined by its symptoms, some may argue that significantly alleviating those symptoms is by definition a cure, even if one that requires on-going consumption of the substance. What symptoms then, does it assist with? The most common ones I’ve read about are anxiety, self-harm, aggression and restrictive diets. Sometimes these symptoms are so severe that the effective treatment of them with marijuana, is a life-saver in a very real sense.
Some of the behaviours that marijuana addresses (such as aggression) may be considered in the category of consequences, rather than symptoms per se, of autism. But where the behaviour would supposedly have not occured but for the precense of autism, the distinction between symptoms and consequences of autism in this context is not necessarily of particular import (though still an interesting and note-worthy distinction).
But what of alternative options; such as widely used drugs and behavioural interventions? As with any other drugs, the primary response to treating an autistic child should be educational and behavioural interventions. Where those are not working, or more extreme help is required while the benefits of those methods are coming into play for the sake of the child’s own safety, then the family may be encouraged to try drugs currently on the market. There is usually extreme caution around using any drugs on children, and particularly so for autistic children since their bodies appear to react in unusual and unpredictable ways to drugs.
The drugs that are currently widely available for treating autism, often have severe side effects; to the point that a problem has to be particularly extreme before the benefits of taking the drug will out-weigh the harms caused by taking the drug.
In turn, before turning to marijuana, a family should have tried behavioural and educational interventions, and must make an informed choice about the harms versus benefits of taking marijuana. There do appear to be less harms, and less extreme harms, associated with taking marijuana than for taking the more widely available drugs. It’s long-term use is also arguably better understood than mainstream drugs despite some limitations on official research, since marijuana has been available a heck of a lot longer than the modern manufactured and prescribed drugs, and the effects of its use have also been observed for thousands of years.
In a broader sense – beyond addressing individual symptoms – marijuana use appears to positively affect overall quality of life for autistic people too. The stories of users are not typically ones of stoned individuals staring at their fingers and pretty colours all day, when they would have otherwise been alert, independent and contributing members of society (which is the image many people call up when they talk about marijuana use more generally, and simply cross-apply it to the life of a severely autistic child). Rather, marijuana appears to – for example – lower social anxieties to the point where otherwise house-bound adults and “unteachable” children, become more engaged with those around them and better able to learn within school environments.
Would I use marijuana with my own son? No. But that is because we have never used any autism-specific drugs for our child, following the cautious approach of his developmental pediatrician who avoids using drugs on autistic children, and strongly encourages persistence with behavioural interventions instead (even in the face of his extreme anxieties that seriously impacted on his daily life). Had our son been even marginally worse than he was, when he was at his worst, I can not say what we would have done. I went through hell with my son that changed me at my core; it’s not that hard to imagine that my own values and priorities could have drastically shifted if I’d found myself in an even worse situation than I was.
From all my reading (and I know I only scratched the surface), one thing is very clear: That it is important that marijuana be further researched to identify and isolate the components that appear to alleviate autism symptoms, and to better understand how and why it may work. Marijuana is not a devil plant, the use of which will always be a statement of the poor character and judgement of the user. To treat it as such further victimizes some of the most severely affected autistic individuals and families that turned to it as a very last resort (in a world where people still painfully restrain and submit autistic people to barbaric practices, in far less appealing efforts to address the symptoms of autism). The debate surrounding its use is complicated by a wide range of issues; some of real concern, some of little weight or importance. If we can calmly approach the topic, putting aside pre-conceived ideas that aren’t backed by science or sound reason, then we’re one step closer to figuring out whether you’d have to be out of your mind to treat autism with marijuana.
I encountered a lot of rubbish during my research into this topic. I did my best to sieve through it; do let me know if any poor science or bad information made it through to my post.
Here though are some of the more informative and useful links I came across (do feel free to share others you’ve found useful):