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Medications for Autism
The following information is meant to give you a general idea about each of the medications listed below. Only the most general side effects are included. Ask your doctor if you need to take any special precautions. Use each of these medications as recommended by your doctor, or according to the instructions provided. If you have further questions about usage or side effects, contact your doctor.
There are no specific treatments for autism. However, several kinds of medications may help to treat symptoms. For example, many individuals with autism have behaviors associated with anxiety, irritability, inattention, obsessive-compulsive habits, or aggression. Some of these medications are used as part of a more widespread treatment program to help with these types of behaviors.
Some drugs in this class appear to help people with autism by altering brain chemistry. These drugs increase the amount of brain chemicals like serotonin and noradrenaline. These chemicals are believed to have stimulant effects. They may help treat repetitive and other maladaptive behaviors, irritability, depressive symptoms, tantrums, anxiety, aggression, difficulty with transitions, and aspects of social interaction and language.
Clomipramine is a medication used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which shares features with autism. The specific chemical abnormalities related to autism have not been identified yet. The use of these drugs is guided by experience and trial and error.
Medications are given 1-2 times per day in doses similar to those used to treat depression . Side effects such as dry mouth, lightheadedness, and sedation are the most common. There are many other side effects. Some are serious, such as disturbances of heart rhythm. Talk to your child's doctor about the specific side effects of these drugs.
This medication is most commonly used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It also may help certain forms of autism. Methylphenidate is not recommended for children under age six. It might help treat hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention.
Possible side effects include:
- Worsening mental disturbances
These drugs are commonly used to treat schizophrenia, but they are also used for autism. These drugs occasionally have severe side effects. They should be used with great caution. Only risperidone and aripiprazole are FDA-approved to treat autism-related symptoms. Risperidone might help in the treatment of aggressive behavior, deliberate self-injury, and tantrums.
Possible side effects include:
- Uncontrolled movements
- High fever
- Dry mouth
- Weight gain
- Liver toxicity
Other medications may be chosen based on other symptoms. Some people with autism may suffer from seizures. In this case, your doctor may prescribe anticonvulsant medications.
Clonidine may also help reduce hyperarousal symptoms including hyperactivity, irritability and outbursts, impulsivity, and repetitive behaviors.
In some cases, these medications may cause unexpected reactions in children with autism. If your child is taking any of these medications, pay close attention to changes in behavior. Stay in close contact with your child's doctor.
If your child is taking medication, follow these general guidelines:
- Give your child the medication as directed. Do not change the amount or schedule.
- Use the measuring device that came with the medication. If you need to use a spoon, cup, or syringe, make sure it has the units that match your child’s prescription. For example, if the medication is given in milliliters (mL), the device should have mL on it.
- Ask what side effects could occur. Report them to your child’s doctor.
- Talk to your child’s doctor before stopping any prescription medication.
- Plan ahead for refills if your child needs them.
- Do not share your child’s prescription medication with anyone.
Autism spectrum disorder. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml. Updated May 14, 2013. Accessed May 14, 2013.
Autism spectrum disorders. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated May 6, 2013. Accessed May 14, 2013.
Behrman RE, et al. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2007.
Coghill D. Current issues in child and adolescent psychopharmacology. Part 2: Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, autism, Tourette’s and schizophrenia. Adv Psychiatr Treat. 2003;9:289-299.
Drug Facts and Comparisons. 56th ed. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons; 2001.
Goetz, CG. Goetz’s Textbook of Clinical Neurology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2007.
Stern TA, et al. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier, 2008.
- Reviewer: Kari Kassir, MD
- Review Date: 03/2016
- Update Date: 03/15/2015