The headlines, like MSN’s Hope for Autistic Children Might Lie in Medical Marijuana, Study Says, are grossly overstating and oversimplifying both the study and its implications.
The actual study, which was published in the scientific journal Neuron, used mice that had two different genetic mutation that are associated with autism, specifically with Fragile X Syndrome. The study found that these mutation affect the brain’s “tonic endocannabinoid signaling.”
“Endocannabinoid signaling in general affects memory formation, learning, pain, and other important processes,” explains The Scientist magazine. The endocannabinoid system is also why the brain reacts to THC, the chemical in cannabis, or marijuana.
In other words, scientists found that maybe there is an association between having autism and how the brain processes learning, pain, and memory.
Study coauthor Thomas Südhof, a cellular physiologist at Stanford University, said that they had no idea if medical marijuana would intensify or ameliorate autism symptoms, The Scientist reported.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is opposed to the use of medical marijuana for children, regardless of diagnosis, and research into its use on either adults or children with autism is nonexistent. Anecdotal evidence abounds, however, with Autism Daily Newscast citing the heartbreaking case of Alex Echols, an 11-year-old boy from Oregon whose story is chronicled in the blog Alex Needs Help.
Alex has autism, seizures, and a condition called tuberous sclerosis, which causes non-malignant tumors to form in his organs. Alex had violently self-destructive behavior, and a number of psychological medications were tried without success. In desperation, his parents tried giving Alex a tincture of marijuana, and found that it helped him more than anything else.
Sounds great…except if you look at the most recent blog post of Alex Needs Help, his family is no longer finding success with treating their son with marijuana. I’m not judging Alex’s parents at all here. I understand the desperation and the need to go beyond the standard medical offerings when things are just not helping your kid.
What’s missing from the coverage of Alex’s story, and other stories like his, is the explanation that his parents aren’t actually trying to treat autism, they’re trying to deal with a behavior. It may not seem like a big difference, but I think it is.
Autism is a neurological difference, and one that I value in my friends, colleagues, and family members who have it. For our two autistic children, my husband and I hope to help them navigate the neurotypical (non-autistic) world, but without really changing who they are. For example, they both receive social skills therapy to help them express themselves in a variety of ways. And we certainly treat the disorders they have, that are often seen with autism, such as anxiety and ADHD.
If medical marijuana is someday an evidence-based treatment for something like anxiety, I can see how that might be a helpful option for autistic adults who also have anxiety. But there is a dearth of high-quality, peer reviewed studies on the use of medical marijuana for mental health issues. When you start also talking about autism and kids, it’s entirely unstudied. Literally no one with any scientific or medical background is recommending that autistic children be given marijuana.
These headlines are problematic for me in two ways: one, they’re misleading on a factual, scientific level. Two, they spread the idea that my kids need to be fixed. I’m trying to get the world to accept my kids as they are, not tell them they need medical marijuana to be a more acceptable person.
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