Medication does not treat the underlying neurologic problems associated with autism. Rather, medication is given to help manage behavioral manifestations of the disorder, such as hyperactivity, impulsivity, attention difficulties, and anxiety. In most cases, medication is given to lessen these problems so that the person can receive maximum benefit from behavioral and educational approaches.
Medications used in autism are psychoactive, meaning they affect the brain. Those used most often include the following:
Antipsychotic drugs: This is the most widely studied group of drugs in autism. These drugs have been found to reduce hyperactivity, repetitive behaviors, withdrawal, and aggression in some people with autism. The newer, atypical antipsychotics, including
risperidone (Risperdal), olanzapine (Zyprexa),
aripiprazole (Abilify), and quetiapine
(Seroquel), have replaced the older, traditional antipsychotics, which had
more side effects. Risperidone (Risperdal) and aripiprazole (Abilify) are now approved by the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration to treat
irritability, aggression, and self-injurious behaviors in children and
adolescents with autism.
- Antidepressants: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are one class of
antidepressants that are commonly used to treat people with depression,
obsessive compulsive disorder
(OCD), and/or anxiety. In some people with autism, these drugs reduce repetitive behaviors,
depression, irritability, tantrums, and aggression. Examples of SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), sertraline
(Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil),
citalopram (Celexa), and escitalopram (Lexapro). Other antidepressants, including
(Wellbutrin), venlafaxine (Effexor), and duloxetine (Cymbalta) have less frequently been used.
Stimulants: Drugs used to treat
attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may help some people with autism. These drugs work by increasing the person's ability to concentrate and pay attention and by reducing impulsivity and hyperactivity. Examples include
(Ritalin, Concerta), dexmethylphenidate (Focalin), as well as amphetamines (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine
and lisdexamfetamine [Vyvanase]).
- Nonstimulant medications that treat ADHD may also help people with autism. These medications have been found to be equally effective as stimulants in their ability to increase the individual's ability to focus, manage their impulses and activity level. Examples of these medications are atomoxetine (Strattera) and
- Other drugs: Other drugs may also help some people with autism. Anticonvulsants are frequently used to manage
seizures in people with autism. Anticonvulsants may also be used to stabilize mood and/or behavior. Alpha-2 adrenergic agonists (for
[Catapres]) are also sometimes used to manage hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some individuals with autism. Buspirone (Buspar) and propanolol have also been
Very few of these drugs have been tested in scientific studies in individuals with autism.
- Moreover, issues related to dosage (especially
important in children), monitoring, and interactions with other drugs and
foods are concerns, as are short- and long-term side effects.
- Many of these medications have side effects such as
sleepiness (sedation) or trouble sleeping (insomnia), weight loss or weight
- Infrequently, dependence may develop with some of these drugs.
medications should be prescribed only by a medical professional experienced in treating persons with autism.
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