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Psychotropic Medication Commonly Used in Children with Autism


Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are often given at least one psychotropic medication to treat unwanted behavioral problems that do not respond to other interventions, according to new research conducted by Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN). The most common reasons for the use of drugs include hyperactivity, repetitive behaviors, irritability, and attention concerns.

The ATN is a network of hospitals and physicians dedicated to developing a model of comprehensive medical care for autistic children and adolescents. It includes 14 treatment and research centers in the US and Canada and enrolls patient 2 to 18 years old with a diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or pervasive developmental disorder (PDD).

The research was presented May 2 at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

An estimated one in 110 US children has autism, and approximately 27% receive at least one medication according to the ATN study. Medication use was more common in older children. Sixty percent of those aged 11 and older took at least one drug compared to 44% of children 6 to 10 years old.

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Risperidone (Risperdal) is FDA approved for the treatment of irritability, aggression, temper tantrums, self-injurious behavior and quickly changing moods in autism spectrum disorders. But many other drugs are used “off-label” to manage other common symptoms.

The most common medications prescribed were stimulants used to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These include Adderall, Concerta, Cylert, Dexedrine, Dextrostat, Focalin, Metadate, and Ritalin. A non-stimulant medication used for ADHD in ASD is Strattera.

Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are also among those used, particularly for obsessive-compulsive behaviors in ASD. Those that are approved for those under 18 include Anafranil, Luvox, Sinequan, Tofranil, and Zoloft.

A child with ASD may not respond in the same way to medications as typically developing children. It is important that parents/caregivers work with a doctor who has experience with children with autism. A child should be monitored closely while taking a medication.

The Autism Society of American recommends that parents discuss medications and other treatments with their child’s primary healthcare provider and ask the following questions before beginning any treatment regimen:

• Is the medication given at the lowest possible dose and yet still effective?
• What are the side effects of the medication?
• Has the treatment been validated scientifically?
• How will the treatment be integrated into my child's current program?