Autism Q & A: What are the side effects of medications used to treat autism symptoms?

By Daniel B. Kessler

I tell parents that you can see any side effect from any medication at any time.  Maybe your child has just started to take a new medication, or it has been several weeks since he or she started it. Maybe the dosage has recently increased.

Whatever reaction, response or side effect you are seeing in your child could be from that medication, or not.  If you are concerned, ask the provider who prescribed it and you should have access to someone who can answer that question for you.

Every medication has its own side effects profile and this information should be given to you. If it is not, ask for it. The general categories of side effects may include physical responses (weight gain, rashes, stomach difficulties, changes in blood pressure), behavioral reactions (hyperactivity, irritability, aggression, sleepiness or trouble sleeping), emotional overreactions (meltdowns, crying, agitation), unusual sensations (visual hallucinations) or unusual movements like tics or dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that causes twisting and repetitive movements or abnormal postures.

This can be confusing because some of these side effects  are just like the behaviors that are being treated!

Whenever you suspect a response may be a side effect related to a medication, you should consider whether or not there are other symptoms or behaviors that suggest another underlying cause, like seasonal or contact allergies to something else in the child’s environment. You may need to have your child seen by his or her primary care provider (or in an ER) if the reactions are confusing or potentially dangerous (such as a seizure).  Document what is going on so that when you report the side effect to your medical provider you can  explain when it started in relation to when the medication started, what time of day the reaction started in relation to when the medication was given, how long the reaction lasted (or is it ongoing) and what helped alleviate it.

Next: What about alternative treatments? 

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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