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Does Marijuana Really Help Autistic Children and Adolescents Cope with Their Symptoms?

Does Marijuana Really Help With Childhood Autism?

A number of years ago as a therapist in a state sponsored residential treatment program, we found ourselves in a heated dispute. On the discussion table where two camps, the first which I belonged to had to do with getting rid of the organization's policy to physically restrain a youth if he acted out and presented as a threat to himself or his peers, and the second camp was about maintaining the organization's policy.

The problem with this organization's policy was that students became subject to being restrained even if they found themselves in a pushing contest with another peer, and as one of my co workers put it plainly, "by not doing away with the physical restraint rule, we were simply trying to make our jobs easier, without making a true impact in the lives to the students we were there to help." I was recently reminded of this statement, when I encountered the news story of a mother who reportedly gave her autistic son marijuana to address his refusal to eat, and I also suspect - rage episodes. It is no secret what my stance on marijuana is, and that of some readers who vehemently disagree with me. Needless to write, this mother is absolutely wrong in her actions, and she is taking the easy route in addressing her son's mental health issues.

True, I understand that marijuana is notorious for increasing appetite in consumers of the drug, which would make sense for the case of her ten year old son, who wasn't eating. However, there are a number of alternatives she as a mother could have taken to address her son's refusal to eat. I would go into what these steps are, as I expect an irritate reader will demand to know. However I am reluctant, as I am not aware of the specifics of the boys' self starvation. Different circumstances call for different measures. What I would like to get into are the primary symptoms of autism and why marijuana doesn't help.

There are three significant symptoms an autistic child suffers from, and these are problems in socially relating to others, qualitative impairments in communicating and restrictive repetitive, stereotyped patterns of behavior. Marijuana does not improve any of these symptoms. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are eleven research studies which suggest that heavy marijuana use, (defined by smoking marijuana for twenty-seven consecutive days or more,) leads to a decline in a person's ability to learn, retain information and function successfully in society. Being able to socially relate to others in diverse settings is learned behavior, so for a child who already struggles with this skill, marijuana decreases the likelihood that any progress will be made on the issue.

Furthermore, in a 1978 research study conducted by Paul Clopton and his colleagues on "marijuana and the perception of effect."The results of this study strongly suggested that consumption of marijuana significantly reduced an individual's ability to perceive emotions in others. Needless to say the ability for one person to perceive emotions in another involves empathy on the perceiver's part and for empathy to be present; communication also has to be present. Yet another reason why giving marijuana to an autistic child is a poor medical decision, as the likelihood of a child's being able to improve upon poor communication skills is significantly reduced. The third symptom of autism in children which has to do with restrictive, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviors, all have to do with the child or adolescent developing an awareness on how certain socially unacceptable behaviors can put others off, and can cause a child to experience excessive episodes of rejection. Again being able to read social cues, all comes down to being empathetic.

In all fairness, this isn't the first mother who claims that marijuana has helped her a great deal in being able to manage her sons autism. In my research I found several stories of mothers who claimed that marijuana did miracles for their children suffering with autism, however there were also several mothers who reported that behavioral measures had mixed results - for good reason. By one mother's account, she admitted that behavioral measures for her had mixed results, due to inconsistencies in practice. According to her, she and her husband found the behavioral techniques they had learned from their son's therapist too cumbersome and laborious.

Unfortunately, that's the nature of the beast, behavioral techniques, even for autistic children do work. However, in order for them to work, they have to be practiced a hundred percent of the time, and this will call for a radical change in the lifestyles of the parents. The purpose of raising a child, is to prepare them for the stress and added responsibilities of adulthood, parents who resort to using a marijuana as an aid with their autistic child, risk raising a child addicted to marijuana and ill prepared for adulthood.

Ugo Uche is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in adolescents and young adults.

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