Medications cannot treat autism, but are sometimes used to treat symptoms associated with autism and autism spectrum disorders. Doctors treat symptoms including obsessive-compulsive behaviors, depression, anxiety and hyperactivity in children with autism using drugs developed for these conditions. Parents may also consider asking for medication to improve severe behavioral issues, including aggression, self-injury and tantrums.
Doctors use a variety of drugs to treat the symptoms of autism. Seratonin re-uptake inhibitors like fluoxetine, fluvoxamine maleate and clomipramine treat depression and anxiety in those with autism, reports the Autism Society of America. Anti-psychotic drugs, designed to treat schizophrenia, may also reduce aggression, hyperactivity and repetitive behaviors. Some kids with autism respond to stimulant medications used for attention-deficit disorder, particularly children with less severe forms of autism. Doctors occasionally prescribe anti-seizure drugs to reduce rage or mood swings, or deal with seizures.
As a parent, you may consider asking for medication to deal with behavioral problems, or as a part of a comprehensive treatment plan to help your child thrive. If you are hoping to help your child function, your doctor may choose an anti-depressant to reduce repetitive behaviors and improve eye contact, or to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety. Tantrums, mood swings, aggressive behavior and self-injury put you and your child at risk and can be treated with anti-psychotic medications, like Risperidone.
The drugs chosen to treat autism spectrum disorders work on a child’s brain in different ways. Seratonin re-uptake inhibitors increase the amount of seratonin in the brain, while older anti-depressants impact levels of both norepinephrine and seratonin. Risperidone, FDA-approved to treat autism, increases prolactin levels and affects both seratonin and dopamine in the brain. Anti-seizure medications inhibit brain activity, increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, or stabilize brain membranes.
A child with autism may react differently to medications than individuals without autism. Choose a health care provider experienced in medicating children with autism to make sure that your child’s care is properly managed. Children on the autism spectrum typically have very sensitive nervous systems and may require a lower dosage than is usually prescribed. Keep in mind that many drugs are not FDA approved for the treatment of autism, so this is an off-label use.
Side effects vary depending on the medication. Weight gain, dry mouth, sedation or insomnia, nausea and dizziness may occur with many of the drugs used for children with autism. Children with bipolar disorder can experience manic episodes or mood swings on anti-depressant medications. Some drugs, like Risperidone, require regular monitoring for potential serious side effects.