When most of us think of autism, we might imagine a quirky genius oblivious to the subtleties of human interaction. Or maybe a quiet child who avoids eye contact with others.
What we don’t imagine are self-destructive children who require protective equipment to manage. But that was Brandy Williams’ life.
Williams’ 8-year-old son, Logan, was diagnosed with a host of neurological disorders falling under the autism spectrum just before he turned 3 years old. One in 59 children have autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Almost 30 percent of them display “self-injurious behaviors.”
As a toddler, Logan would bang his head against anything hard enough to hurt. He once put his head through a double-paned window. He couldn’t speak much, but would often scream. By the time he was 5, he’d knocked out his front teeth. Attacks were a go-to response.
“He was like a little tornado,” said Williams, who lives in Gilbert. “We couldn’t leave the house.”
That was until June 19, 2015 — a day Williams remembers because it’s the first day she used a cannabis tincture to help Logan. The results were almost immediate.
“Within 20 minutes he stopped flapping his hand,” William said. “He came and sat down next to me and watched an entire movie with me. That’s never happened.”
Now, Logan can finally dress himself. He learned 180 new words during the first couple of months of treatment.
In an ironic twist of events, he even won most well-behaved in his first year of school.
Williams is president of the Arizona chapter of Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism. For the past three years, she’s been trying to get autism added to the state’s list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis.
MAMMAs and the Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association have collectively petitioned the Arizona Department of Health Services four times to add autism as a qualifying condition. They’ve been denied each time.
Their reasoning, Williams said, ranges from autism as “too broad” a category to a lack of scientific evidence.
It’s true, the evidence of cannabis helping with autism remains almost entirely anecdotal as a result of the difficulty in acquiring federal permission to conduct studies with cannabis. Some countries with friendlier attitudes toward cannabis, such as Israel, have begun conducting such studies.
MAMMAs has won campaigns in six states that now list autism as a qualifying condition. Delaware specifies “autism with aggressive behavior” — perhaps to ensure the term isn’t “too broad.”
But the Arizona DHS has held tight.
“I don’t think half the pharmaceutical drugs approved by the FDA would meet the standards of the Arizona health department,” Williams said. “I think they’re completely biased.”
Williams believes part of the equation is financial. She said she saves thousands of dollars compared to treatments some parents use to treat their children’s autism.
Despite a yearly cost of $550 for numerous applications and doctors’ evaluations, cannabis provided the cheapest and most effective treatment for Logan, Williams said.
Part of the problem was that Williams couldn’t work because she had to constantly tend to Logan. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that autism results in an annual $11.5 billion economic loss, partially because of the inability of parents to work.
Williams returned to work when Logan completed his first year of school.
Though it’s the most effective treatment for Logan and has allowed Williams to return to a somewhat normal life, you won’t find any cannabis oil in Williams’ house.
The new Arizona court ruling outlawing cannabis extracts has Williams feeling like she “has a target on her back.”
She keeps it off-site in fear of someone using it as a reason to take Logan away from her.
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“We’re a medical-marijuana state,” she said. “They’re using taxpayer dollars to prosecute sick people.”
Most recently, Williams appeared in front of the state Legislature advocating for a bill that would add autism as a qualifying condition.
To her surprise, she saw more support from Republican representatives than Democrats.
“Even if you’re not impacted by autism directly, you’re still impacted by autism,” Williams said. “I think with education, everybody’s going to do the right thing.”