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.”