Autism: Drugs/Medications

Medications

Some medications can help reduce symptoms that cause problems for your child in school or at home. Many other medications may be prescribed off-label, meaning they have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a certain use or for certain people. Doctors may prescribe medications off-label if they have been approved to treat other disorders that have similar symptoms to ASD, or if they have been effective in treating adults or older children with ASD. Doctors prescribe medications off-label to try to help the youngest patients, but more research is needed to be sure that these medicines are safe and effective for children and teens with ASD.

At this time, the only medications approved by the FDA to treat aspects of ASD are the antipsychotics risperidone (Risperdal) and aripripazole (Abilify). These medications can help reduce irritability—meaning aggression, self-harming acts, or temper tantrums—in children ages 5 to 16 who have ASD.

Some medications that may be prescribed off-label for children with ASD include the following:

  • Antipsychotic medications are more commonly used to treat serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. These medicines may help reduce aggression and other serious behavioral problems in children, including children with ASD. They may also help reduce repetitive behaviors, hyperactivity, and attention problems.
  • Antidepressant medications, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) or sertraline (Zoloft), are usually prescribed to treat depression and anxiety but are sometimes prescribed to reduce repetitive behaviors. Some antidepressants may also help control aggression and anxiety in children with ASD. However, researchers still are not sure if these medications are useful; a recent study suggested that the antidepressant citalopram (Celexa) was no more effective than a placebo (sugar pill) at reducing repetitive behaviors in children with ASD.
  • Stimulant medications, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin), are safe and effective in treating people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Methylphenidate has been shown to effectively treat hyperactivity in children with ASD as well. But not as many children with ASD respond to treatment, and those who do have shown more side effects than children with ADHD and not ASD.

All medications carry a risk of side effects. For details on the side effects of common psychiatric medications, see the NIMH website on "Mental Health Medications".

FDA warning about antidepressants

Antidepressants are safe and popular, but some studies have suggested that they may have unintended effects on some people, especially in teens and young adults. The FDA warning says that patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks of treatment. Possible side effects to look for are depression that gets worse, suicidal thinking or behavior, or any unusual changes in behavior such as trouble sleeping, agitation, or withdrawal from normal social situations. Families and caregivers should report any changes to the doctor. The latest information is available on the FDA website .

A child with ASD may not respond in the same way to medications as typically developing children. You should work with a doctor who has experience treating children with ASD. The doctor will usually start your child on the lowest dose that helps control problem symptoms. Ask the doctor about any side effects of the medication and keep a record of how your child reacts to the medication. The doctor should regularly check your child's response to the treatment.

You have many options for treating your child's ASD. However, not all of them have been proven to work through scientific studies. Read the patient information that comes with your child's medication. Some people keep these patient inserts along with their other notes for easy reference. This is most useful when dealing with several different prescription medications. You should get all the facts about possible risks and benefits and talk to more than one expert when possible before trying a new treatment on your child.