written by: Barbara Smith
• edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom
• updated: 2/18/2011
There is no autism medication that actually cures the disorder. However, medications can alleviate symptoms. In this article, we will discuss medications which can be used to treat anxiety, depression, poor attention, hyperactivity, poor sleep and mood disorders.
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A wide variety of autism medication options meant to address specific symptoms should be explored depending on each individual's unique circumstances. In this article, we take a look at a few of the most commonly used types of medications.
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Anti-anxiety and Anti-depressant Medications
Individuals with autism face communication, social and sensory motor challenges which impact abilities to develop play skills, make friends and succeed academically. The world is a scary and unpredictable place and individuals with ASD may develop anxiety and depression in response to poor coping skills. Anxiety and depression may also be the result of biochemical imbalances that can be treated with autism medication such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) - fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), paroxetine (Paxil) or sertraline (Zoloft). SSRI’s work by blocking the re-absorption of the neurotransmitter seratonin. Changing this balance seems to positively affect mood and decrease anxiety and obsessive compulsive behaviors. Studies have shown that seratonin affects learning, memory, sensory and motor processes and that it can reduce the repetitive behaviors see in individuals with ASD. Anti-depressants can also decrease irritability and aggressive behaviors
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Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyperactivity
Stimulant medications such as amphetamine (Adderall), methylphenidate (Ritalin) or atomoxetine (Strattera) may be prescribed for children with autism who demonstrate an attention deficit disorder (ADD). Stimulant autism medication may decrease compulsivity and hyperactivity- helping children to focus and decrease inappropriate behaviors. Children with an ASD often have very sensitive nervous systems and may not respond to medication in the same way as typically developing children do. In addition, some medications may not have not been officially FDA approved for use with children. Therefore, children must be closely monitored for side effects and started with the lowest dose possible. Possible side effects (which may be dose related or disappear after the first few weeks) to look for include: loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, nervousness, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure and abdominal pain.
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Anti-psychotic Medications and Mood Stabilizers
Anti-psychotic medications such as risperidone (Risperdal), thioridazine (Mellaril) and olanzapine (Zyprexa) are designed to help people suffering from hallucinations, delusions and thought disorders that impair abilities to function. These medications may be prescribed for children with ASD to treat repetitive behaviors and reduce tantrums and aggression. Mood stabilizer medications such as valproic acid (Depakote) are designed to treat bipolar disorders, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia. Mood stabilizers are also used to reduce compulsivity, aggression and social problems seen in children with autism.
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Special Diets, Vitamins and Supplements
Children with ASD typically consume limited diets due to their sensory sensitivities (to food textures, smells and tastes) and these restricted diets may lead to nutritional deficiencies. Therefore, taking a multi-vitamin may be especially important. According to the research studies described in "Autism: A comprehensive Occupational Therapy Approach," parents of children with ASD frequently report problems with gastrointestinal and digestive disorders (i.e. chronic constipation or diarrhea). It is not clear whether GI problems are due to their restricted diets, inadequate water intake, food allergies or other causes that may or may not be related to autism. Treatment may include special diets (such as the gluten and casein free diets) or probiotics and/or antifungals to re-establish normal digestive tract bacteria. There is anecdotal, but unproven, evidence that the amino acid “Secretin" which facilitates normal metabolism of protein during digestion can improve behaviors such as eye contact and speech. In addition, children with ASD who demonstrate sleep disturbances may benefit from a Melatonin supplement - a substance which is naturally produced in the pineal gland. It is sold in pharmaceutical and health food stores.
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Disclaimer - The information about autism medication options provided in this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for the advice of a medical professional.
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“Autism: A comprehensive Occupational Therapy Approach"; Heather Miller Kuhaneck & Renee Watling; 2010.