Aspergers Teens and Marijuana Use

Question

My 17-year-old son has just recently been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome. After several really rough years of being bullied and having difficulty with maintaining friendships, we began to see him drifting towards "the wrong crowd" and using marijuana. At first, we assumed it was an experimental thing, but has since caused him to be arrested for possession. He continued to use despite mandatory drug testing.

The scary thing is that I fear that marijuana has become his new "obsession." He admitted to daily use and has told me on more than one occasion that he has no intentions of stopping. He sees it as a harmless, "natural" substance. Now, it has gotten to the point where I have seen discussions on his facebook that indicate he is involved in dealing, not as a big time dealer, but what looks like someone who delivers to "friends." He flat out denies he is involved in dealing despite my husband and I having read these messages. He even came home recently with a black eye and I fear he was beaten due to a bad deal. We are scared out of our minds and not sure where to go from here.

He wants to go to college, has good grades, but just cannot see the dangerous road he is on, despite many people telling him and the trouble it has already brought to him. We have him in counseling (for the past month or so) and it is clear that he is self-medicating.

Do you have any advice? I don't think a traditional drug treatment program would work with his very rigid way of thinking and I'm afraid this could make matters worse. Thank you - your newsletters have brought a lot of great advice and validation during the process of learning about Aspergers.

Answer

Adolescence is a time that is more emotional for everyone. Yet the hormonal changes coupled with the problems associated with Aspergers can result in the Aspergers (high-functioning autistic) teenager becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Childish temper tantrums can reappear. The Aspie teen may act-up by physically attacking a teacher or peer. He may even experience a "meltdown" at home after another day filled with harassment, bullying, pressure to conform, and rejection. Suicide and drug addiction become real concerns, as the Aspergers teenager now has access to cars, drugs and alcohol.

Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug among America's youth today, and children are smoking it at a younger age than ever before. Moreover, the strength of the drug has increased in the past two decades, and other chemicals are often added to increase its effects. 

Here are the facts on marijuana:

• A significant body of research has identified the consequences of marijuana use, including changes to the brain, problems with learning, effects on mental health, and lung and respiratory damage. Marijuana leads to changes in the brain similar to those caused by cocaine, heroin and alcohol.

• Adolescents age 12 to 17 who use marijuana weekly are nine times more likely than non-users to experiment with other illegal drugs or alcohol, five times more likely to steal and nearly four times more likely to engage in violence.

• Despite popular belief, scientific research has shown that marijuana use can indeed lead to dependency and addiction.

• For teens, marijuana can lead to increased anxiety, panic attacks, depression and other mental health problems.

• Marijuana affects alertness, concentration, perception, coordination and reaction time.

• Marijuana affects many of the skills required for safe driving and other tasks, and these effects can last up to four hours.

• Marijuana is more potent than ever and can lead to a host of significant physical, social, learning and behavioral problems at crucial times in the lives of teens. 60% of teens currently in drug treatment have a primary marijuana diagnosis. Today's marijuana is more potent and its effects can be more intense.

• Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. Every day in 1999, more than 3,800 youth ages 12-17 tried marijuana for the first time. That's more than tobacco. The number of eighth graders who have used marijuana doubled between 1991 and 2001, from one in ten to one in five. Young marijuana users often introduce other youth to the drug.

• Regular marijuana users often develop breathing problems, including chronic coughing and wheezing.

• Research has also shown a link between frequent marijuana use and increased violent behavior.

Moms and dads are the most powerful influence on their kids when it comes to drugs. Two-thirds of youth ages 13-17 say losing their parents' respect is one of the main reasons they don't smoke marijuana or use other drugs. Moms and dads who perceive little risk associated with marijuana use have kids with similar beliefs. Often times, parents neglect to refer to marijuana use when talking to their kids about drugs. They are more concerned about so-called "hard" drugs and the dramatic increase in use of club drugs. Many moms and dads do not fully appreciate the specific dangers of marijuana today. In some cases, they draw on their own experiences with drug, 30 years ago when it wasn't nearly as potent.

What can parents do?

Clear communication by moms and dads about the negative physical, emotional, and functional effects of drugs, as well as about their expectations regarding drug use have been found to significantly decrease drug abuse in Aspergers teenagers.

Adequate parental supervision has also been found to be a deterrent to drug use in Aspergers teens. Specifically, parents knowing how, where, and with whom teens socialize, as well as limiting their child's access to substances that can be abused have been associated with less teen drug use.

Limiting the amount of alcohol, cleaning solutions (inhalants), prescription, and over-the-counter medications that are kept in the home to amounts that can be closely monitored and accounted for has also been found to decrease substance abuse by teens. There are also programs that offer treatment for addiction to marijuana that can greatly help parents deal with the marijuana habit of their children.

Family-focused abuse-prevention programs have produced reductions in teen drug abuse. Among ethnic minorities in the United States, those who strongly identify with their communities and cultures have been found to be less likely to experience risk factors for using drugs compared to their peers who are less connected to their communities and cultures. Thus, incorporation of a 'cultural component' to drug abuse prevention programs may enhance the effectiveness of those programs. In addition, teenagers 15 to 16 years old who use religion to cope with stress tend to use drugs significantly less often than their friends who do not use religion to cope.

Drug use has been found to occur most often between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m. – immediately after school and prior to parents coming home from work. The teenager’s participation in extracurricular activities has been revealed as an important technique in preventing drug abuse in this age group.

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