Autism Q & A: What medications are available to treat autism?

By Daniel B Kessler

There are no medications that treat the core challenges of autism, though you can bet the pharmaceutical companies and autism research centers are working on developing some. What we do have available treats only the symptoms or behaviors but that is often so important by itself.

If a child’s behavioral (disruptive behavior or aggression) or emotional (anxiety, obsessive tendencies, sensory overload, meltdowns) challenges limit his or her ability to participate in and therefore benefit from educational, therapy or recreational activities, then these symptoms may be legitimate targets for a medical approach (that means the judicious, careful trial of medications). Medication, used appropriately, doesn’t control behavior. It should allow the child to be in control of his behavior.

The decision to use medication rests with parents. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Find someone to answer your questions and address your fears. Talk to parents who have decided to go ahead and place their child on medication and those that have not. Ask them to let you know their reasons and experiences. But be careful about third-hand accounts (“I know one parent whose sister’s kid had a really bad reaction to ____”).

No parent is excited about having to use medication. Every medication has potential side effects — even “over the counter” medications or “natural” supplements.

But there is also a cost to not getting help for these behaviors. The child may not benefit as much as he or she could. While on medication a child may do better; progress more quickly, with the ability to better regulate their behavior or emotional reactions. Once again, information helps. Ask questions. Look at reliable sources of information. What is this medication supposed to do? How does it work? How long will it take to show a benefit? Has it been studied in children with autism? Has it been shown to be safe and effective? If not FDA-approved and being used off-label* has it been used for children with autism? Has this doctor used it to treat kids with autism?

Next: What are the potential side effects? 

Daniel B. Kessler, M.D., is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and medical director of the Children’s Developmental Center at Easter Seals Southwest Human Development. His private practice, where he provides evaluation and treatment for children and adolescents, is located at Southwest Human Development.

The views he expresses in this series are based on his training, his reading of the literature and his more than 30 years of experience taking care of hundreds of kids on the autism spectrum. The series begins here.

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*Off-label use is the practice of prescribing a medication for a condition, or an age group, for which it has not been reviewed and “approved” by the Food and Drug Administration.  It is up to the manufacturer of the medication to submit an application for approval. However, the FDA does not have the legal authority to regulate the practice of medicine, and any physician may prescribe a drug off label.

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