Monarch Center for Autism Cleveland Ohio


Medicine-bottleThere are a number of medications,224 developed for other conditions, which have been found effective in treating some of the symptoms and behaviors frequently found in individuals with ASD. Some of these behaviors include: hyperactivity, impulsivity, attention difficulties, and anxiety. The goal of these medications is to reduce these behaviors to allow the individual with ASD to take advantage of educational and behavioral treatments.

When medication is being discussed or prescribed, it's important to ask the following questions:

  • What is its safety record for children on the autism spectrum?
  • What is the appropriate dosage?
  • How is it administered (pills, liquid)?
  • What are the long-term consequences of taking the medication?
  • Are there possible side effects?
  • How will monitoring occur and by whom?
  • What laboratory tests are required before starting the drug and during treatment?
  • Are there possible interactions with other drugs, vitamins or foods?

Given the complexity of medications, drug interactions, and the unpredictability of how each patient may react to a particular drug, parents should seek out and work with a medical doctor with expertise in the area of medication management and experience with individuals with ASD.

What Medications are Available?

People on the spectrum, parents and professionals must be empowered to critically examine the wide variety of options available to determine associated threats and opportunities and, therefore, make informed decisions. The information provided here is meant as an overview of the types of medications sometimes prescribed. Be sure to consult a medical professional for more information.

There are a number of medications frequently used for individuals with autism to address certain behaviors or symptoms. Some have studies to support their use, while others do not. Serotonin re-uptake inhibitors have been effective in treating depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and anxiety that present in some individuals with ASD. Researchers who have consistently found elevated levels of serotonin in the bloodstream of one-third of individuals with autism feel that these drugs could potentially reverse some of the symptoms of serotonin dysregulation in autism. Three drugs that have been studied are clomipramine (Anafranil), fluvoxamine (Luvox) and fluoxetine (Prozac). Studies have shown that they may reduce the frequency and intensity of repetitive behaviors, and may decrease irritability, tantrums and aggressive behavior. Some children have also shown improvements in eye contact and responsiveness.

Other drugs, such as Elavil, Wellbutrin, Valium, Ativan and Xanax have not been studied as much but may have a role in treating behavioral symptoms. However, all these drugs have potential side effects, which should be discussed with qualified professionals before treatment is started.

Anti-psychotic medications have been the most widely studied of the psychopharmacologic agents in autism over the past 35 years. Originally developed for treating schizophrenia, these drugs have been found to decrease hyperactivity, stereotypical behaviors, withdrawal and aggression in individuals with autism. Four that have been approved by the FDA are clozapine (Clozaril), risperidone (Risperdal), olanzapine (Zyprexa) and quetiapine (Seroquel). Only risperidone has been investigated in a controlled study of adults with autism and was approved in 2006 by the FDA for the treatment of autism. Like the antidepressants, these drugs all have potential side effects, including sedation, which need to be carefully monitored by a qualified professional with experience in autism.

Stimulants, such as Ritalin, Adderall and Dexedrine, used to treat hyperactivity in children with ADHD, have also been prescribed for children with ASD. Although few studies have been done, anecdotal evidence shows these medications may increase focus and decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity in autism, particularly in children who are not as severely affected as others. However, dosages need to be carefully monitored because behavioral side effects are often dose-related.

Increased use of medications to treat autism spectrum disorders has highlighted the need for more studies of these drugs in children. The National Institute of Mental Health has established a network of Research Units on Pediatric Psychopharmacology (RUPPs) that combines expertise in psychopharmacology and psychiatry.

If you are considering the use of medications, contact a medical professional experienced in treating individuals on the autism spectrum to learn of possible side effects and discuss potential benefit. People with ASD may have very sensitive nervous systems and the normally recommended dosage may need to be adjusted. Even the use of large doses of vitamins should be under the supervision of a medical doctor.


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