An Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis for a child can bring on a challenging and overwhelming time for parents. Amongst the barrage of decisions they’ll have to make is whether to medicate their child, and what approach to take with medication.
Autism Spectrum Disorder, as defined by the United States National Library of Medicine, is “a neurological and developmental disorder that begins early in childhood and lasts throughout a person’s life. It affects how a person acts and interacts with others, communicates, and learns.” Some of the more common known behaviors exhibited by those on the spectrum can include limited or no speech, averting direct eye contact, fixation on specific interests, poor socialization skills and repetitive verbal and behavioral actions.
There are no medications that can fully cure ASD or its associated symptoms. However, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, there are several different medications that are often prescribed in order to combat specific symptoms associated with the disease. Currently, Risperidone is the only drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration specifically for use in treating symptoms of irritability in autistic children between the ages of 5 and 16.
While not specifically approved by the FDA for the purposes of treating ASD, there are numerous other medications commonly used to help improve symptoms of autism. These include:
- Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors and Tricyclics: These two types of antidepressants treat issues stemming from chemical imbalances. They’re often used to treat obsessive compulsive and repetitive behaviors, anxiety, irritability, tantrums, and aggressive behavior. They can also be used to improve eye contact.
- Psychoactive or Anti-Psychotic Medications: These medications can decrease hyperactivity and minimize withdrawal and aggression among people with autism. Risperidone falls under this umbrella.
- Stimulants: These medications can help increase focus and decrease hyperactivity. They’ve been found to be particularly helpful for those with more mild ASD symptoms.
- Anti-Anxiety Medications: This category of drugs help relieve anxiety stemming from panic disorders, which are often associated with ASD.
- Anti-Convulsants: These medications treat seizures and seizure disorders like epilepsy, which as many as one-third of people on the ASD spectrum have.
All of these medications carry potentially serious risks, and should only be administered when prescribed by the child’s health care provider. Medications may not be helpful in all cases, as individual patients may react differently.
Many in the medical field, including professionals at the Mayo Clinic, recommend medications be used with various types of behavioral therapy to achieve the best results. These include communication therapies that teach children on the spectrum how to act in social situations and communicate better with others, and family therapies that teach parents and other family members ways to interact with their children that promote social interaction and teach daily living skills. Specialist-guided structured educational therapies are also commonly used to improve social skills, communication, and behavior on an individualized basis. In our practice, we believe that medications can be titrated over a period of time to a very low level or discontinued if there is a strong behavioral, socialization and skill training plan that is effectively implemented.
There are countless options available to parents whose children are diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum. It’s necessary for those parents to work with their child’s primary healthcare providers to plan and closely monitor what medications and therapies work best for their child.