How do medications treat autism spectrum disorders?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

The developmental delays of autism spectrum disorders cannot be treated with medications, but sometimes medications are used to treat other symptoms. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and anti-anxiety drugs may be used to decrease the number of repetitive behavior symptoms. Antipsychotic medications may be used to treat some symptoms.

Sarine Salama
Sarine Salama on behalf of MDLIVE
Psychology Specialist

There is no medication to treat ASD. Medications help treat the behavioral and cognitive symptoms of the disorder. Discuss with your child's doctor and do some of your own research before giving your child any type of medication.

Those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) manifesting significant anxiety might benefit from serotonin reuptake inhibitor medications such as fluoxetine and sertraline. Marked impulsivity and hyperactivity as well as difficulties getting off to sleep at night can be helped by alpha agonist medications such as guanfacine and clonidine.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved use of risperidone and aripiprazole for children with autism age 6 and older experiencing severe irritability or aggression. However, a study in Pediatrics found little benefit for most of the other medications used to treat ASD. Medications that address challenging behavior had the strongest evidence to support their use.

Risperidone and aripiprazole—second-generation antipsychotic medications (SGAs)—have at least two randomized controlled trials apiece that found improvements in challenging behavior, hyperactivity and repetitive behavior. However, both medications cause significant side effects, including weight gain and sedation with risk for diabetes and hyperlipidemia. The study concluded that insufficient evidence is available to judge potential benefits and adverse effects of all other medications used to treat autism.

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William Stillman
Health Education Specialist

It is important to clarify this question by affirming that you do not medicate autism. Autism is a neurological difference in brain wiring that precludes individuals from moving as gracefully as they would wish; communicating verbally; and understanding social engagement. Autism is not to be "treated" with pharmacology any more than you would prescribe drugs to treat Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.

What parents may consider medicating (as one option from an array of informed choices) are the adjunct experiences than can occur in individuals with autism who may be sensitive, vulnerable or genetically predisposed: extreme anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and, in some cases, obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, please know that very few psychotropic (mood-altering) medications are Food & Drug Administration-approved for use in children; their prescription is at the descretion of the prescribing physician.

Before considering a medication regime to address your child's social-emotional issues, please ensure that you have thoroughly researched the desired effects, the side-effects and the natural alternatives to such. My book, Empowered Autism Parenting, contains a comprehensive medication information form in it that may aid parents in making this decision when gathering the necessary knowledge to make an informed choice.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.