8 min · Autism
December 21, 2020

Medications for Autism

Today, we have no cure for autism spectrum disorder or all of its symptoms. There is no medication to that .

However, there are several interventions developed to target reducing certain symptoms. These aim to improve cognitive ability and daily living skills . Medications can also be helpful in treating certain symptoms associated with ASD.

When to think about medical interventions for children with autism

It may be difficult to decide whether or not or when you will try medications for your child with autism.

Non-medication interventions such as speech and language therapies or occupational therapy have been proven practical and effective in development of certain skills for the individual. Many families utilize these tools to address the deficits in social and communication skills as well as other skills required in daily life.

Sometimes, the child may not respond in the desired way to intensive therapies. At this point, parents ask themselves if they should consider taking medication.

Although the core symptoms of ASD like communication or restricted and repetitive behaviors cannot be cured with medication, children with autism spectrum disorder can be treated with medication for conditions associated with the disorder. These include anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity.

If you notice that your child has behaviors that are self-harming or severely impact their day to day life, you might consider consulting your child’s pediatrician about medications. Medications can also be utilized if a condition associated with ASD has not responded to other non-medicinal approaches.

It is important that you talk to the right person to get the medication intervention. A pediatrician or a child psychiatrist can prescribe medication that affects children’s minds or how they are feeling. It is important to seek a professional with experience working with autistic children.

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What are the medication options for autism?

There are several medication options for autism depending on the condition to be treated. Here are some of them:

  • Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) : These are antidepressants to treat some problems resulting from imbalances in the chemical systems. They can be used to reduce the frequency and intensity of repetitive behaviors, and decrease tantrums and anxiety.
  • Stimulants: These help increase focus and decrease hyperactivity, and are helpful for those with mild ASD symptoms.
  • Anti-anxiety medications: This group of medications help reduce anxiety and panic disorders that are commonly associated with ASD.
  • Psychoactive or antipsychotic medications: These are used to decrease hyperactivity and minimize withdrawal and aggression for people with autism. They affect the brain directly. The antipsychotic drug risperidone is approved for reducing irritability for children with autism aged 5 to 16.
  • Anticonvulsants: These medications are used to treat seizures and seizure disorders like epilepsy.
  • Tricyclics: These medications are another type of antidepressants. They are used to treat depression and obsessive behaviors. Compared to SSRIs, they seem to cause more minor side effects and are sometimes more effective in treating certain people with certain symptoms.

medications and autism

There are other medications with claims to treat certain symptoms or conditions. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning that some of these treatments can carry serious risks. Before you move forward with any medication, parents and caregivers should talk with their healthcare provider.

Parents should consult their child’s healthcare providers about any medication treatment for their children with autism. All medications carry risks. Some of them could be serious. It is important that families work together with their child’s healthcare providers to ensure the safest use of any medication , if proven needed.

How do medications help with behavior management?

Medications can be helpful with certain characteristics of autistic children, such as aggressive behavior, anxiety, obsessive behavior, hyperactivity, seizures or sleep problems.

Although there are no medications to treat the core symptoms of autism, medication can be helpful with conditions that are associated with the disorder.

Here, it is important to decide whether medication is the right option for your child. This means talking to your child’s healthcare provider about how the medication can be helpful or what their side effects are before making any decisions.

Risperidone is a medication used to reduce aggressive behaviors in autistic children. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors can help reduce anxiety. SSRIs can also reduce children’s obsessive behaviors.

By reducing or alleviating certain behaviors, medications can help improve an autistic child’s quality of life. For instance, around one-third of individuals with autism have seizures at some point in their lives. Some have a lot of them. Many children with autism can be diagnosed with epilepsy. And seizures can usually be treated with anti-epilepsy medication.

Hyperactive behavior is another condition that can be treated with medication. Stimulants like Ritalin and Concerta can be prescribed to reduce hyperactivity in some children with autism. This could help children to be able to concentrate on a task.

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Some autistic children suffer from sleep difficulties. Use of melatonin can help overcome some of these sleep difficulties for children with autism, allowing them to have a less irritable day when they wake up rested.

Are medical interventions for autism safe?

Medication can sometimes be helpful with behavioral and other difficulties that come with autism. However, not all medications that work for some may work for those with autism.

Medications have side effects, and the decision to use medication will highly depend on the autistic individual’s needs. It is important to consider the side effects and have a thorough talk with your child’s healthcare provider.

Any medication used improperly could be harmful to anyone, whether or not they have autism. The important thing is that the medication treatment focuses on the individual’s specific needs.

There are drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which can help in managing some associated symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Before use of any medication, parents and caregivers should consult their healthcare providers or child pediatrician.

Aside from the medications that work, FDA has discovered and taken action against by warning companies that have made claims that were found out to be improper. These claims were about the products’ intended use as treatment or cure for autism or autism-related symptoms. FDA has stated on its website that these therapies may carry significant health risks.

Here is the list, taken from the website of the Food and Drug Administration , that are thought to carry health risks:

  • “Chelation Therapies.” These products claim to cleanse the body of toxic chemicals and heavy metals by binding to them and “removing” them from circulation. They come in a number of forms, including sprays, suppositories, capsules, liquid drops and clay baths. FDA-approved chelating agents are approved for specific uses that do not include the treatment or cure of autism, such as the treatment of lead poisoning and iron overload, and are available by prescription only. FDA-approved prescription chelation therapy products should only be used under professional supervision. Chelating important minerals needed by the body can lead to serious and life-threatening outcomes.
  • Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. This involves breathing oxygen in a pressurized chamber and has been cleared by FDA only for certain medical uses, such as treating decompression sickness suffered by divers.
  • Detoxifying Clay Baths. Added to bath water, these products claim to draw out chemical toxins, pollutants and heavy metals from the body. They are improperly advertised as offering “dramatic improvement” for autism symptoms.
  • Various products, including raw camel milk, MMS (chlorine dioxide) and essential oils. These products have been marketed as a treatment for autism or autism-related symptoms, but have not been proven safe and effective for these advertised uses.

asd and meds

It is important to always be on the lookout and weigh the benefits and risks of any treatment. This decision should be taken with a medical professional like your child’s pediatrician.

Medications for Autism Anxiety

One of the most common challenges the children with autism face is persistent anxiety. Anxiety can cause behaviors like avoiding certain matters or running away when encountered with unknown situations.

Autistic children are also at a high risk for developing depression. This depression can get to a point that it may require medication.

The most commonly medications prescribed to treat these anxiety and depression symptoms are Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). They have been studied for use with children. However, they are not specifically approved for autism.

SSRIs have been found to help with anxiety and obsessive thoughts and behaviors. However, more research is needed to determine how well these medications help with repetitive behaviors.

As with many medications, SSRIs also have some side effects. The following are some in the list:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritation
  • Nervous feelings
  • Stomach aches and pains

Parents and caregivers whose children with autism should watch the symptoms closely and carefully as recently doctors and scientists have stated their worries about SSRIs possible side effects leading to self-harm, particularly under the age of 25.

What is the most effective treatment for autism?

Combined with quick and effective intervention, early diagnosis of ASD is the best possible way to allow the child with autism to have a full and independent life.

Today, the most effective treatments available for autism spectrum disorder is applied behavioral analysis (ABA), speech therapy, and occupational therapy. A regiment of each of these therapies will be effective in that they will minimize the impact of the core symptoms of ASD.

In addition to minimizing the symptoms, they improve the quality of life by equipping the child with skills and behaviors to utilize in day-to-day life.

Applied Behavioral Analysis work on the behavior, systematically changing it based on scientifically proven principles. It encourages positive behaviors while also discouraging negative ones. ABA can also help gaining new skills.

The key is early and intensive behavioral intervention specifically curated to fit the needs of the child with autism so as to achieve the best results.

What medication is used for autism in adults?

Similar to autistic children, adults with autism also suffer from various conditions associated with autism spectrum disorder.

Although autism is a life-long disorder, a lot of the research about autism treatment focuses on children. The main reason for this is that studies have shown that treatment is most effective when started early, before the age 3.

This doesn’t mean that there are no treatments for adults with autism. Many of the treatments designed for children with autism can also be helpful for adults with the disorder .

Antipsychotics like risperidone and apripiprazole can help alleviate aggression and behavioral problems in both children and adults. Antidepressants can also be used to treat depression and anxiety in individuals with autism.

Adults suffering from hyperactivity and inattention can benefit from stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin).

In addition to behavioral and other types of therapies, the abovementioned medications can be used to treat anxiety and depression in adults with autism.

Any pharmaceutical intervention brings about a risk. Therefore, adults should also consult their primary healthcare provider or physician with experience in autism for any medication use, its risks and benefits.

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This article is examined by Clinical Child Psychologist and Ph. D. Researcher Kevser Çakmak, and produced by Otsimo Editorial Team.

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This post does not provide medical advice. See Additional Information.

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