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Autism Spectrum Disorders: Medication

There aren’t any medications that treat ASDs directly, but some medications can be used to treat some of the symptoms that may accompany these disorders, especially in school-age kids. For example:

  • Antidepressant drugs such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac or Zoloft, can be used to treat symptoms like mental inflexibility, perfectionism, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive behavior. These medications can help regulate the chemicals in the brain that affect mood.
  • Antipsychotic medications (such as Risperdal) are used to treat schizophrenia and schizophrenia-related disorders. These powerful drugs can ease the irritability and agitation that kids with ASDs often have because their fight-or-flight response is on high alert. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Risperdal for the treatment of irritability (including aggression, deliberate self-injuring, and temper tantrums) in children between the ages of 5 and 16 who have ASDs -- a significant development in the treatment of ASDs, experts say.
  • Stimulant medications (such as Ritalin, Concerta, or Adderall, which are used to treat ADHD) can help with the impulsivity that often accompanies an ASD.

Sometimes, too, a combination of medications is warranted. For example, in a child with an ASD, “symptoms can vary between impulsive and compulsive behavior so a child may need an SSRI and a stimulant,” Dr. Coplan says. “And you need to work on behavior management if you’re going to use medications.” In other words, medications alone won’t fix a child’s mood or behavior problems. Since children with ASDs may not respond to medications the way their normally developing peers do, it’s important for parents to monitor their child closely while he’s on meds and to stay in close contact with their doctor.