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More Parents Are Looking to Marijuana to Help Kids With Autism

Photograph by Twenty20

For some parents who are at their wits' end finding ways to ease their kids' autism symptoms, medical marijuana has offered a relief other medications and treatments apparently can't. This past year has seen several parents of children with autism speak out, especially as more states qualify autism patients for medical marijuana use and major studies examine the effects of cannabis on children.

Most recently, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Australian pharmaceutical research firm Zelda Therapeutics are joining up to see how effective medical marijuana is as a treatment in pediatric patients with autism. The observational study is expected to start early next year and have preliminary results within six months.

Pennsylvania was one of the first states to add autism as a qualifying condition for its medical marijuana program, which will fully launch next year. In 2015, Delaware made "autism with self-injurious or aggressive behavior" a qualifying condition. And just this month, the Minnesota Department of Health approved autism as a qualifying condition since it first authorized the medical marijuana program in 2014.

One of the people who helped broker the Philadelphia partnership was mom Erica Daniels, who has a 12-year-old son with autism. Daniels told CBS Philadelphia that after using the state-approved drug, medical marijuana dramatically changed his and the whole family's quality of life.

The mom wasn't the only one to speak about the benefits of medical marijuana for children with autism.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects 1 in 68 children in the U.S. and can cause impaired social, communication or behavioral skills. Some severe symptoms can also include aggression, self-harm or seizures.

For Marie Myung-Ok Lee, her son's violent rages (sometimes as many as 300 in a day) began when he was a toddler, after he had to have two major spinal-cord tumor surgeries. When he was 3 years old, they realized he had a disease that left him with gut pain and severe autism that made it hard for him to express himself.

They tried all kinds of treatments and medications, from applied behavior analysis to having a hypoallergenic diet to being prescribed powerful anti-inflammatories. Nothing worked. Prescriptions had harsh side effects, such as an average weight gain of six pounds or violent episodes triggered by seemingly small things.

"I was desperate and frantic. It seemed like I'd run out of options," Lee wrote in the Washington Post in January. She finally looked into cannabis. "Might this, I wondered, help mitigate my son's pain and the onslaught of sensory input that he struggled to process?"

By the time he was 9, she would give him carefully dosed cookies, and later oil tinctures, and said the results seemed like a miracle that kept giving.

"The look of joy and pride on his face as he rides, same as other kids with their families, on a beautiful waterside bike path in New York is glorious to see. He shouldn't have to go back to days of howling pain and self-injury," she wrote.

Similarly, 17-year-old Noa Shulman has had bad reactions to antipsychotic drugs, which are the only medications that have been approved in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration to treat symptoms of autism in children and adolescents.

When Noa took them, "she was like a zombie," her mom Yael told USA Today. "She would just sit there with her mouth wide open, not moving."

Noa is part of a study at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, which started in January and ends at the end of 2018. The study is the first of its kind to see if anecdotal evidence, like that of Lee, is authoritative when it comes to the effects of medical marijuana for young people with autism.

Researchers of several studies in the last decade think that autism might arise from endocannabinoid deficiency or complication. That is, a gene mutation blocks natural production of endocannabinoids (think of it as the body's natural THC) and disrupts the signaling pathway between body and mind.

But as studies are still ongoing, experts warn against premature conclusions about marijuana as treatment for autism. We don't know what the long-term impact of prescribing cannabis to younger people would be, especially to their brain development. But for some families who are already dealing with more harmful opioids and antipsychotic drugs, despite the limited data, cannabis might seem like the only hope during long, difficult times.

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