Steamboat Springs A Steamboat Springs parent uses medical marijuana to treat her 13-year-old son’s autism.
Babette Dickson said she’s seen positive results since she started giving James medical marijuana. When Dickson gives it to him — in the form of edibles or tinctures — she said he’s less prone to outbursts.
She said James, who struggles with language, sometimes gets frustrated and angry when he has trouble communicating. She said he has anxiety. Yet, Dickson said James has been calmer the few times he has ingested medical marijuana.
“I think if some people are offended or shocked by this, that’s OK,” Dickson said. “I know what’s best for my child. It’s a choice I made for James.”
Dickson, who teaches French at Steamboat Springs High School, said she first learned about medical marijuana as a possible autism treatment method after seeing it used that way on a cable television news program. She started doing research, finding newspaper articles about other parents who successfully used the controversial treatment with their children in states where it was legal to do so.
Marijuana became legal for people with certain medical conditions and a doctor’s recommendation after Colorado voters approved Amendment 20 in 2000. California was the first state to allow it, in 1996. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., since have approved the use of medical marijuana.
Dickson long has been aware of marijuana’s benefits. She said her first husband smoked marijuana recreationally after he returned from Vietnam, where he served as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces.
She noticed how it treated his post-traumatic stress disorder and the pain he experienced from the shrapnel lodged in his body. She said it also treated the pain associated with the gallbladder cancer that ultimately took his life in 1995.
Dickson decided to give medical marijuana a try with James before last school year ended. Concerned about the chemicals in prescription medications and wary of their effects, Dickson said she’s never given James pills.
Just three times last year she gave James peanut butter cake or brownies containing marijuana before sending him to school. Dickson said James doesn’t know he’s been given medical marijuana. She observed his behavior before dropping him off and asked his teachers about his behavior during the day when she picked him up.
Satisfied with the initial results, Dickson took James to get a medical marijuana registry card in June.
After Colorado voters approved Amendment 20, the state’s constitution was amended to allow the use of medical marijuana for eight debilitating conditions: cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia (physical was ting away though weight loss and muscle atrophy), severe pain, severe nausea, seizures and persistent muscle spasms.
The state constitution allows physicians or patients to petition the Colorado Board of Health to add a debilitating medical condition to the list of eight. Mark Salley, a spokesman with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in an e-mail that the Board of Health had not been petitioned to consider autism.
And according to the most recent statistics on the department’s website, only 24 people younger than 18 had been approved to use medical marijuana as of Feb. 28, 2010.
Dickson said James suffers from muscle spasms. Because he is a minor, state law requires that two doctors approve his use of marijuana. Two physicians did so via teleconference from Rocky Mountain Remedies in Steamboat, a practice that is no longer legal.
One of the doctors, a Denver physician, declined to comment for this story. The other doctor, a Denver obstetrician and gynecologist, couldn’t be reached for comment. Several Steamboat physicians also declined to comment about the viability of marijuana as a treatment method for the symptoms of autism.
But as the news stories that Dickson researched indicate, she’s not the only parent who has given her autistic child medical marijuana. One of the most well known is the story of Sam, an autistic boy in Sacramento, Calif., whose parents started giving him medical marijuana last year when he was 10 because he was starting to get violent.
Sam’s father, Steve, has kept a journal detailing his son’s progress since he started using medical marijuana. In the most recent entry, dated Oct. 14, 2010, Steve wrote in a response to a letter that Sam was doing well. Steve said Sam takes medical marijuana only occasionally, about eight to 10 times per month, but when he does, it’s very effective at calming him down.
“We are continually grateful that we stopped traditional medication and put Sam on” medical marijuana, Steve wrote. “I fear that Sam may not be the healthy and happy 11-year-old that he is today if we continued treating him with doctor prescribed pharmaceuticals.”
Some national autism organizations have taken notice of the anecdotal stories.
Kelly Vanicek, secretary of the National Autism Association Board of Directors and its research chairwoman, said the organization doesn’t endorse or discourage the use of medical marijuana.
“It has been shown to have effectiveness in cases of gastrointestinal disorders, seizures, autoimmune disorders and tics,” she said during a telephone interview from Rhode Island. “A lot of those issues affect children on the spectrum. I can understand if parents have exhausted traditional treatment methods. We suggest parents should make their decisions with licensed medical professionals.”
Lu Etta Loeber, executive director of the Yampa Valley Autism Program, said the organization and its board have not discussed the use of medical marijuana to treat autism.
Dickson said she gave James medical marijuana for the first two weeks of school because he was working with new teachers. Since then, she’s given it to him only as needed. She continues to monitor his behavior.
“I don’t know how he feels. I don’t know how he experiences the marijuana in his body,” Dickson said. “He never asks for it. I don’t see any kind of substance addiction.”
Dickson said Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Shalee Cunningham and James’ teachers know that she gives him medical marijuana on occasion. Kyle Mokma, a paraprofessional who works with James at Steamboat Springs Middle School, said he is skeptical of the treatment method.
Mokma, who studied psychology at Western Michigan University, said applied behavior analysis, a learning method that emphasizes the relationship between actions and consequences, is the only proven treatment method for autism.
But Mokma said he would like to study how medical marijuana, with and without applied behavior analysis, affects James’ ability to perform tasks and control his behavior. He said the study could start after the first of the year.
“Basically, I’m trying to demonstrate a treatment effect, whether these things help him control his aggression and stay engaged in activities,” Mokma said. “Because we haven’t had a chance to do a controlled study on medical marijuana and measure behaviors, I can’t say if THC is having an effect on his ability to control his aggression or perform tasks because there is no data yet.”
Tetrahydrocannabinol is thought to be the active ingredient in marijuana.
Dickson said she came forward because she wants others to know that medical marijuana could be a viable treatment option for their autistic children.
“I want the community to know about this,” she said. “It’s not just for ski bums or people making excuses for bad backs.”