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Oregon family uses medical marijuana to manage son’s autistic rage

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Alex Echols, left, is severely autistic and is given medical marijuana to control his rage.

By Nicole Doll

FOX12 Oregon (KPTV)

PORTLAND — An Oregon family has turned to medical marijuana to manage their son’s severe autistic rage.

“It was indescribable, it was horrifying,” said Jeremy Echols, father of 11-year-old Alex. “When you’ve got no other options, are you honestly gonna say no?”

Alex Echols is severely autistic, and his doctor said Alex’s self-destructive behavior is brought on by Tuberous Sclerosis, a rare, genetic disorder that affects about 50,000 people in the United States. The disorder causes unregulated growth of non-malignant tissue in organs. In Alex’s case, his neurologist said growths in Alex’s brain have led to seizures and autism.

“Alex cannot communicate using words and that leads to behavior that is very frustrating for him and for those caring for him,” said Dr. Colin Roberts, a pediatric neurologist at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland.

On the day Alex was born, Jeremy Echols said he and his wife were full of hope. Until six weeks later, when their baby had his first seizure.

“We didn’t know he’d be autistic at that time,” he said. “I think he was three when he started hurting himself though.”

Echols said by the time Alex was 5, he exhibited intense, self-directed rage. Echols showed us home videos of the rage. He said they videotaped the episodes to show doctors the injuries were self-inflicted.

Echols said Alex head-butted anything he could. He said the boy bruised his forehead so badly, the blood would drain down until Alex’s entire face was black and blue.  His parents got him a helmet to protect his head, swaddled him like a newborn and tried mood-altering drugs to control the behavior, with little success.

Alex’s daily, violent behavior became the Eugene family’s new normal. When he was 8, the Echols made the heartbreaking decision to move Alex into a state-funded group home.

“It was like we were throwing him away, like we were giving him to somebody else and saying, ‘Sorry buddy, you’re not part of the family anymore,'” he said. “It was pretty rough.”

But was there a way to help him? In late 2009, the Echols said they saw a television news story about a California woman who was using medical marijuana to treat her autistic son. The Echols researched Oregon’s medical marijuana program, and in 2010 a doctor approved Alex for medical marijuana use.

“We tried the (marijuana) brownies, we tried butter for cookies,” he said.

Alex is now one of 58 minors currently protected under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act. While autism is not a qualifying medical condition like cancer or severe pain, in Alex’s case, his seizures were.

And after a few months of treatment, the Echols said they saw a dramatic improvement.

“He went from being completely, yelling, screaming, bloodying his face, to within an hour, hour and a half, he would be playing with toys, using his hands,” he said. “Something that at that time was almost unheard of.”

Echols said Alex’s group home will not administer the marijuana, so, about three times a week off-site, his parents give Alex a liquid form of the drug by mouth.

The dosage is up to the parent and Oregon law does not require a doctor to monitor a child’s medical marijuana use. In fact, Alex’s neurologist didn’t know about the alternative treatment, until we told him.

While Dr. Roberts did not condone the treatment, he said he understood the family’s desire to help their child.

“Alex’s parents are wonderful people.” he said. “I certainly am very much with them in my desire to help Alex. All of us want to help Alex.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has circulated a resolution that opposes the use of medical marijuana in children. Dr. Sharon Levy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and chairwoman of the AAP’s committee on substance abuse, told FOX 12 marijuana is toxic to children’s developing brains. She also said enough isn’t known about the drug’s long-term effects.

“For us, the long-term side effects that are unknown for something that can’t kill him are a lot better than the long-term side effects of him beating himself bloody,” Echols said.

The Echols also said they’re not advocating the use of medical marijuana for all autistic children, but they say those who walk a mile in their shoes may not consider the treatment so extreme.

The Echols have set up a Facebook page that chronicles Alex’s journey. You can find their blog at

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  • roro

    Did anyone ever think that maybe his head hurts and he is in pain and maybe thats why he is banging his head against the wall? Have they tried pain medicines?

  • Patty Erickson

    I have a 21 year old son with fragile x and autism. He is currently on Risperidone, it worked for a while but now no longer works. He beats himself daily, bloody lips, ears, bruised face. I am willing to try this, I am scared of how to go about this. I am going to get the courage to ask his Dr. I can't let him suffer like this thank you for showing this!

  • Ashley

    DO what is best for your child. It is such common sense. Good job, parents, for not giving up and finding a solution to your child's problem. As parents, that is your #1 objective. Care for and protect your children.
    This should NOT be a controversial issue.

  • Jack

    Medical marijuana for autistic children and adults who suffer from this devastating behavior called self abusive behavior in autism are one of the most sane situations to evaluate when considering this drug to be legal for certain cases. Research shows conventional pharmaceutical drugs are largely ineffective in treating self injurious behaviors in autism. Therefore, it makes sense that Medical Cannabis would be legal and safe to give autistic persons who are held captive to self injury. Cannabis is a known 5HT1 receptor antagonist, which means it elevates serotonin, calming the brain. It also has antioxidant effects. OF course the question is always HOW does someone get an autistic person to ingest cannabis? THe answer depends on the autistic person. THere are high functioning asperger people who need cannabis to calm their OCD or sensory challenges. THen there are lower functioning autistics who benefit from cannabis because it elevates appetite and mitigates pain. Now pain is a known antecedent to self injury in autism. SO, but reducing pain and increasing appetite you now take an otherwise self destructive autistic person who is hell bent on bloodied themselves all day and refusing to eat, to a calm, happy, giggling, hungry autistic who is a pleasure to be around, with no lingering side effectives. No extra pyramidial symptoms. NOw, if that isn't common sense, I don't know what is. Obviously, MMJ for many autistic persons is a GOd send.

    • Jack

      When I said HOW do you get the autistic person to ingest it, I meant, well, it's tough. The higher functioning autistics may be able to smoke it, but lower functioning autistics have to either get it through food, in form of canna butter or cannaoil. Another way to ingest is by tossing raw cannabis into food, but the amount has to be precise and therapeutic.

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