When typical medications simply aren't doing enough to manage their children's symptoms, mothers like Jenni Mai are turning to cannabis for a more natural autism treatment. With current regulations, however, they're having to become pharmacists for their own families.
Jenny Mai, a mother of three sons on the autism spectrum, founded Whole Plant Access for Autism. WPA4A is a nonprofit with a two-pronged mission, aimed at educating parents with autistic children and helping families access cannabis for autism treatment.
The testimonials of parents who have administered marijuana to their autistic children are striking, but the medical research community has some catching up to do. If scientific studies prove what many parents believe to be true, it could open up a whole new world of legal treatment.
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Limited Autism Treatment Options Lead to Extreme Measures
Children with autism express problematic behaviors that affect their health and ability to function in society. Autism causes communication difficulties, cognitive impairment, and can spur aggressive or explosive behaviors. All of these limit a family's ability to participate in normal, daily activities.
As it stands, there's no cure for autism, but available treatments are designed to help manage these symptoms. The downside is that for many families, the most commonly prescribed autism treatment isn't nearly effective enough.
Today, most autism treatment options are limited to pharmaceuticals that produce uneven results with undesirable side effects. Families need access to a range of services and treatments, but this particular field of medicine is heavily regulated.
As a result, many of the challenges of getting new treatments such as medical marijuana involve jumping regulatory hurdles. For this reason, families like Jenni Mai's have taken what some would consider "extreme measures" to access alternative autism treatment solutions.
A Cross-Country Move for Autism Treatment
Of her three sons, Jenny Mai's 24-year-old, Nate, has the most severe case of autism. At the age of five, he started taking medication to help manage his symptoms. When that stopped working in his preteen years, he was prescribed more powerful pharmaceuticals for autism aggression treatment, but his behavior started to worsen.
For many families, commonly prescribed autism medications aren't enough, producing uneven results and undesirable side effects.
He had dangerous outbursts at school, was admitted to a psychiatric unit on multiple occasions, and there were times when he had to be physically separated from the rest of his family for the duration of a violent episode. By the time Nate turned 18, he was taking 18 pills each day without noticeable relief from his symptoms.
That's when Mai saw a video of a child with autism symptoms that caused repetitive self-injury, similar to her own son. The boy in the video was given an oil and moments later, he relaxed. Mai felt she had to try this for her son and in March of 2015, moved her family to Los Angeles to buy medical marijuana for Nate.
The Challenges of Accessing a More Natural Autism Treatment
Today, most adults have easy access to recreational marijuana and medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, plus Washington DC. The question that many parents of autistic children are asking though, isn't really "How many states have legalized medical marijuana?" but rather, "How accessible is medical marijuana to minors?"
With a doctor's prescription and a legal guardian's authorization, minors can access medical marijuana in these 33 states. Although medical marijuana is legally accessible in more than half the United States, it's not easy to get a prescription -- especially for a child -- from a doctor.
The science backing the actual benefits, side effects, and long-term effects of marijuana for health disorders is scarce. Studies on cannabinoids extracted from cannabis, such as cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabidivarin (CBDV) are even rarer.
Rightfully so, not many doctors are willing to write prescriptions for substances that have no evidence-based recommendations for treatment, nor peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Since evidence of the benefits and side effects of marijuana for health disorders is scarce, few doctors are willing to prescribe it for children.
In Los Angeles, Mai was able to get a prescription for medical marijuana from her family's doctor, but the doctor was legally restricted from providing any advice regarding how to administer cannabis to her son.
At the dispensary, Mai was overwhelmed by the options, not knowing which would be best for Nate. She ended up leaving with a selection after receiving guidance from a security guard. Within moments of taking his first dose, Nate calmed down, made eye contact with his mother, and smiled -- behaviors which Mai had never before witnessed in her son.
Proving The New Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder
Aside from personal stories like Nate's, there isn't much concrete evidence to support the use of marijuana products as natural remedies for autism. But Dr. Eric Hollander of Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York is leading the first large-scale clinical trial designed to study the treatment of autism with cannabis.
Funded with a 1.3 million dollar grant from the US Department of Defense, the study is examining the effectiveness of cannabis-based compound CBDV on irritability and repetitive behaviors in children on the autism spectrum.
Dr. Eric Hollander is leading the first large-scale clinical trial to study the treatment of autism with cannabis.
Mothers of autistic children weren't the first to consider how medical marijuana benefits their kids. The first to successfully navigate this uncertain territory were actually parents of children with forms of severe epilepsy, who suspected CBD could help prevent seizures.
In 2018, the prescription CBD solution called Epiodolex was approved to treat two rare forms of severe pediatric epilepsy. Although this FDA-approved drug is based on a cannabis extract, it is legal for prescription use in all 50 states.
What Does the Future Hold for Medical Marijuana and Autism?
If current studies on marijuana and autism yield positive results, the FDA just might fast-track the approval of new autism treatments in the form of a CBVD pharmaceutical, like it did with Epiodolex.
In the meantime, awaiting the results of Dr. Hollander's study, Jenni Mai and other parents working for WPA4A continue to spread awareness, educating other families on the potential benefits of medical marijuana for reducing autism symptoms.
Cannabis is by no means a natural "cure" for autism, but if approved, it could drastically help improve the quality of life in countless families. For more interesting news about the people and ideas that are changing our world, subscribe to Freethink.