Ask the Expert
Q: What are the most common types of medications used to treat autism? How do I know which one is the right fit for my child?
A: Currently, there are no medications which treat underlying causes of autism. Rather, medications are used to target symptoms commonly occurring in autistic individuals such as irritability, aggression, distractibility, hyperactivity, impulsivity, anxiety, mood fluctuations, depression or sleep problems.
Dopaminergic antagonists, risperidone (Risperdal) and aripiprazole (Abilify) are used to treat aggression and irritability. ADHD symptoms (distractibility, hyperactivity and impulsivity) are treated with stimulants methylphenidates (Concerta, Focalin, Metadate, Ritalin, Quillivant and others) or amphetamines (Adderall, Vyvanse and others), atomoxetine (Strattera) or alpha-agonists (guanfacine and clonidine). Anxiety may be treated by SSRI’s such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft) or the non-benzodiazepine anxiolytic, buspirone. Depression, mood irritability or OCD may be benefited by SSRI’s, sleep problems by melatonin, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or clonidine; and, tics by guanfacine, clonidine or dopaminergic blockers. No medications have been shown to treat stimming or repetitive autistic behaviors (as opposed to repetitive behaviors driven by OCD which may respond to treatment with an SSRI).
Typically, one identifies symptoms which may benefit from medication, prioritizes them and selects a medication to target that symptom. The prescriber takes into account a variety of factors including secondary symptoms, behaviors, other individual characteristics and responses to prior medications. For example, it may be acceptable for an obese child to have the side effect of decreased appetite while this may not be acceptable for an individual who is already having difficulty gaining adequate weight. An individual with ADHD and anxiety tendencies may have exacerbation of anxiety from stimulant medication and lessening of anxiety when his ADHD is treated with atomoxetine. One also considers practical issues such as cost and whether the child will more readily tolerate a pill which must be swallowed whole, a chewable or liquid medication?
Which medication is right for your child is determined by a process of educated trial and observation since any individual’s therapeutic response and acceptable side effect profile may be unique. All medications may have adverse effects though, happily, the overwhelming majority of side effects are not dangerous or irreversible if prescribed and monitored appropriately. Unfortunately, people on the autism spectrum are frequently more prone to side effects. A cardinal rule in dosing medications for people with autism is, “start low and go slow.” Regular communication between the parents, teachers and prescribing physician or nurse is key to finding a medication and dose which works for your child.
It is important to remember that optimal interventions for individuals with autism are multi-modal. That is, a combination of behavioral, educational, recreational, social, language, medical and others. When medication is warranted, parents and practitioner need to remember it is highly unlikely that finding the “perfect dose” of “just the right medicine” will be the entire solution they are looking for. If the parent’s and/or doctor’s perspective is so narrow that the only questions being considered are, “Is this the right medicine?” “Is this the right dose?” “This medication has helped his attention. Now, which medicine do we need to help his anxiety?” the child will not make the gains one would hope for.
For a good resource on autism and medication, refer to the recently-released Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents’ Medication Guide published by the American Academy of Child & Pediatric Psychiatry. Click here to read the full document.
— Dr. Steven Wexberg
[Opening photo: Jamiesrabbits]
Dr. Steven Wexberg is a board certified pediatrician who is on staff at the Cleveland Clinic Pediatric Institute. He received his medical degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 30 years.