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Medical treatments for autism spectrum disorder: Do they help or harm?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Do medical therapies help with autism? Vanderbilt study suggests little evidence

Recent data from the CDC estimates one in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by common symptoms. Medical therapies currently used to treat autism symptoms including agitation, compulsive behavior and anxiety are little help, according to new findings from Vanderbilt researchers.

According to study findings, published September 24, 2012 in the journal Pediatrics, therapies currently used don’t harm, but there also isn’t evidence that they help either.

A review was conducted by the researchers to find out what works to treat core symptoms of autism. The investigators also wanted to see if medications and other therapies made things worse.

Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, M.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Pharmacology and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator said in a press release, “…often in a state of desperation, without clear guidance on what might make things better and what might make things worse, and too often, people with autism spectrum disorders end up on one or more medications without a clear sense of whether the medicine is helping."

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For the study, the researchers reviewed more than 4,500 studies that included 32 investigations detailing medical, behavioral, vocational and educational therapies for people age 1 to 30 with the disorder.

The review found limited evidence for using medical therapy for young adults with autism, with the exception of antipsychotic drugs to treat aggression and hostility. Harm associated with the medications included weight gain and sedation.

Only 5 studies were available testing vocational interventions, but most were flawed. The Vanderbilt investigators suggest more studies are needed.

Only a few studies found benefit from educational therapies such as reading and vocabulary, but he studies were small and follow-up time was limited.

Autism is in the rise. More boys are affected by the disorder than girls. The study showed there is little evidence to support the benefits of medical interventions being used for autism. The researchers concluded there is still much to learn about autism spectrum disorder.

Vanderbilt University
September 24, 2012