Medication Treatment for Autism

Currently, there is no medication that can cure autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or all of its symptoms. But some medications can help treat certain symptoms associated with ASD, especially certain behaviors.

NICHD does not endorse or support the use of any medications not approved by the FDA for treating symptoms of autism or other conditions.

Health care providers often use medications to deal with a specific behavior, such as to reduce self-injury or aggression. Minimizing a symptom so that it is no longer a problem allows the person with autism to focus on other things, including learning and communication. Research shows that medication is most effective when used in combination with behavioral therapies.1

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug risperidone (pronounced rih-SPERR-ih-dohn) for treating irritability in children with autism who are between 5 years and 16 years of age.2 Risperidone is currently the only FDA-approved drug for the treatment of specific autism symptoms.

Other drugs are often used to help improve symptoms of autism, but they are not approved by the FDA for this specific purpose. Some medications on this list are not approved for those younger than 18 years of age. Please consult the FDA for complete information on the medications listed below.

All medications carry risks, some of them serious. Families should work closely with their children's health care providers to ensure safe use of any medication.3

  • Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
    • This group of antidepressants treats some problems that result from imbalances in the body's chemical systems.
    • SSRIs might reduce the frequency and intensity of repetitive behaviors; decrease anxiety, irritability, tantrums, and aggressive behavior; and improve eye contact.
  • Tricyclics
    • These medications are another type of antidepressant used to treat depression and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
    • These drugs seem to cause more minor side effects than do SSRIs. They are sometimes more effective than SSRIs for treating certain people and certain symptoms.
  • Psychoactive or anti-psychotic medications
    • These types of medications affect the brain of the person taking them. The anti-psychotic drug risperidone is approved for reducing irritability in 5-to-16-year-olds with autism.
    • These medications can decrease hyperactivity, reduce stereotyped behaviors, and minimize withdrawal and aggression among people with autism.
  • Stimulants
    • This group of medications can help to increase focus and decrease hyperactivity in people with autism. They are particularly helpful for those with mild ASD symptoms.
  • Anti-anxiety medications
    • This group of medications can help relieve anxiety and panic disorders, which are often associated with ASD.
  • Anticonvulsants
    • These medications treat seizures and seizure disorders, such as epilepsy. (Seizures are attacks of jerking or staring and seeming frozen.)
    • Almost one-third of people with autism symptoms have seizures or seizure disorders.

Autism Speaks, one of the leading autism science and family support organizations in the United States, offers a tool to help parents and caregivers make informed decisions about medication. Visit http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/resources-programs/autism-treatment-network/tools-you-can-use/medication-guide External Web Site Policy for more information.

Creating a Medication Plan

Health care providers usually prescribe a medication on a trial basis to see if it helps. Some medications may make symptoms worse at first or take several weeks to work. Your child's health care provider may have to try different dosages or different combinations of medications to find the most effective plan.

Families, caregivers, and health care providers need to work together to make sure that the medication plan is safe and that all medications have some benefit.

Things to remember about medication:
  • Health care providers and families should work together to help ensure safe use of medication.
  • Not every medication helps every person with symptoms of autism.
  • One person with autism might respond to medications differently than another person with autism or than people who don't have autism.
  • Some medications have serious risks involved with their use.

Citations

  1. Aman, M. G., McDougle, C. J., Scahill, L., Handen, B., Arnold, L. E., Johnson, C., et al.; the Research Units on Pediatric Psychopharmacology Autism Network. (2009). Medication and parent training in children with pervasive developmental disorders and serious behavior problems: Results from a randomized clinical trial. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 48(12), 1143-1154.
  2. FDA Approves the First Drug to Treat Irritability Associated with Autism, Risperdal. (2006). Retrieved January 28, 2011, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/news/news-item/fda-approves-risperdal-treatment-symptoms-associated-autism External Web Site Policy
  3. Potenza, M., & McDougle, C. (1997). New findings on the causes and treatment of autism. CNS Spectrums, Medical Broadcast Limited.

What are the symptoms of autism?

When do children usually show symptoms of autism?

What causes autism?

How do health care providers diagnose autism?

What are the treatments for autism?

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