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Marijuana Madness 

Courtesy Spectrum Publications Nick Buglione


Mieko Hester-Perez is convinced marijuana saved her child’s life. Just six months ago her son, Joey, a 10-year-old with severe autism, weighed just 46 pounds. He stopped eating after the medications he had been taking to control his behavior took away his appetite, according to the Orange County, Calif., mom.

“You could see the bones in his chest and in his arms and legs,” Hester-Perez says. “He had stopped walking and he would bruise very easily.”

But it was medical marijuana, an unorthodox treatment for autism that’s been the center of debate recently, which got her child eating again and changed his life for the better, she says. It was not a decision she made lightly. “I decided to try medical marijuana truly after I exhausted every other treatment,” Hester-Perez says.

About five years ago Joey began exhibiting behaviors typical of children with severe autism—he would hit himself, bang on walls, and throw anything he could get his hands on. “He was very unpredictable,” she says, so much so that she shied away from inviting company over or taking Joey to someone else’s house. “I could no longer socialize with friends or family due to his behavior.”

Hester-Perez tried behavior modification, a gluten-free, casein-free diet, and over 13 different medications with limited success, she says. While some of the medicines managed to reduce Joey’s outbursts, the results were fleeting, according to the mother. “The effects of the medication were temporary. It seems like every three weeks we were either changing the doses or changing the medication, which is normal, but that took a toll on his body,” she says.

All of the medicines—including Ritalin, Focalin and Risperdal—had serious physical side effects on Joey. Thee were facial ticks, seizures and liver damage, but worst of all, a lack of appetite that left Joey emaciated and weak, his mother says.

As grim as the situation was, it was a light-hearted moment with friends that clued Hester-Perez in on the possible benefits of marijuana. “I was sitting around with friends and it started as a joke,” she says. “We were talking about how marijuana users eat, they sit down, they’re very calm, and they’re pleasant to be around.”

Later that night she typed “autism and medical marijuana” into an internet search engine and the name Dr. Bernard Rimland popped up. Rimland is a former director of the Autism Research Institute who wrote about using medical marijuana to treat autism.

“I’m not pro-drug, but I am very much pro-safe and effective treatment, especially in cases when an autistic individual’s behaviors are devastating and do not respond to other interventions,” Rimland once wrote. “Early evidence suggests that medical marijuana may be an effective treatment for autism, as well as being safer than the drugs that doctors routinely prescribe.”

According to the Autism Research Institute, some of the symptoms marijuana has improved in children with autism include anxiety, aggression, panic disorder, tantrums and self-injurious behavior. Though Rimland died in 2006, his ideas continue to draw interest from parents with children on the spectrum. Read more


USC Annberg University of California

Neon Tommy is the online publication of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism

Natasha Zouves | Contributor

January 12, 2012 | 11:46 a.m. PST

One Mother Takes the Cause Into Her Own Hands

Frustrated by this lack of research in the area of marijuana and autism, one Orange County mother started a campaign and a foundation to help raise awareness and funds.

Mieko Hester Perez said the issue of cannabis in the treatment of autism lies close to her heart—she said she almost lost her twelve-year-old autistic son Joey, before she discovered medical marijuana two years ago.

“He was on a combination of thirteen different prescription drugs, and his weight dropped down to 46 pounds. He was diagnosed with anorexia and malnutrition, second to his autism,” said Perez. “Ultimately, his doctors gave him six months to live. I was devastated. And I was determined I would figure out a way to extend his life.”

She maintains, unequivocally, that discovering marijuana and introducing it to her son has saved his life.

“The immediate change I saw was eye contact. He gained over 40 pounds, he’s happier and better behaved,” she said.

The next step for Perez was to found the Unconventional Foundation for Autism to provide support to families and to help raise money for research into alternative therapies for autism, like medical marijuana. So far, the foundation has played a key role in a California university's symposium presentation on how autism and related symptoms can be treated with medical cannabis, especially in the cases of children.

But Perez’s long journey with Joey and his autism has taken a sudden turn, and now, cannabis is playing a larger role in his life than ever before.

Six months ago, Joey was diagnosed with a terminal illness in addition to his autism: Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. It’s a disease of rapidly progressing muscle weakness—by the age of 12 most children are confined to wheelchairs, and very few live past the age of 16.

Perez said she is still dealing with perhaps only having months left with her little boy. The day before our interview she spent 13 hours at the hospital with him.

“Yesterday, Joey lost the ability to feed himself,” said Perez, through tears, “so we know it’s already in the middle of his chest. It’s been hard. But I have to keep a smile on my face.”

A smile may be on her face, but research is on her mind. Perez found that some studies suggest marijuana may have a protective effect on muscles. She said it is an effect she is counting on.

“At the end of the day, the cannabis is keeping him alive,” said Perez. “Cannabis has helped extend my sons life and at the same time it’s given my son the best quality of life.”

And after Joey is gone, she said the foundation will continue his legacy.

“Before cannabis, the dark place that I was in with Joey was a horrible place. I wouldn’t want any other family to go through that,” said Perez. “Cannabis has forever changed my life. And I know that Joey has changed the way people look at cannabis when treating autism.”

Perez has probably been the most vocal parent in the recent media-storm of interest surrounding medical marijuana and autism—she has appeared on multiple Southern California stations and on Good Morning America defending cannabis as a valid treatment. She said she doesn’t know exactly how many other parents like her are out there, but the numbers are large and growing.

“After I was on Good Morning America, I received over 700 emails from parents asking questions,” said Perez. “I really think there’s a mother like me and a child like Joey in every city and every state in this country. There are definitely other parents using it, I’m just the only parent that has gone public.”

Published 2011 Written by Jacob Ebel

When a person becomes a parent, their main goal is to care for and protect their child. When a parent has an autistic child, that goal becomes much more difficult. An estimated one out of 110 children are diagnosed with Autism, making it more common than juvenile diabetes, childhood cancer, and pediatric AIDS combined. Autism affects an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States, and tens of millions worldwide. Statistics suggest that the rate of Autism is growing 10-17% each year. Although there is no established explanation for this increase, improved diagnosis and environmental factors are two reasons often considered.

What is Autism? Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders, or PDD. These disorders also include Asperger Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified). Autism is a disorder of neural development, characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. These signs all begin before a child is three years old. Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood. Parents will usually see signs of Autism within the first two years of their child’s life.

A Mother Struggles To Save Her Son Mieko Hester Perez is the mother of an autistic child, his name is Joey. Joey was diagnosed with Autism when he was 18 months old. By the time Joey was 9 years old, his battle with Autism was threatening his life. He weighed only 46 lbs. and his bones where showing on his chest. The conventional medicines that the doctors prescribed were not doing much for him, though he took 13 of them each day, up to three times a day. His appetite was poor, he was hurting himself physically, and his doctor ultimately gave him six months to live. Desperate to save her son, Mieko began looking for an alternative.

Read more A Chat with Mieko Hester-Perez