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The following information is meant to give you a general idea about each of the medicines listed below. Only the most general side effects are included. Ask your doctor if you need to take any special precautions. Use each of these medicines as recommended by your doctor, or according to the instructions provided. If you have further questions about usage or side effects, contact your doctor.

There are no specific treatments for autism. However, several kinds of medicine may help to treat symptoms. For example, many individuals with autism have behaviors associated with anxiety, irritability, inattention, obsessive-compulsive habits, or aggression. Some of these medicines are used as part of a more widespread treatment program to help with these types of behaviors.

  • Fluoxetine
  • Fluvoxamine
  • Sertraline
  • Clomipramine

Some drugs in this class appear to help people with autism by altering brain chemistry. These drugs increase the amount of brain chemicals like serotonin and noradrenaline. These chemicals are believed to have stimulant effects. They may help treat repetitive and other maladaptive behaviors, irritability, depressive symptoms, tantrums, anxiety, aggression, difficulty with transitions, and aspects of social interaction and language.

Clomipramine is a medicine used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which shares features with autism. The specific chemical abnormalities related to autism have not been identified yet. The use of these drugs is guided by experience and trial and error.

Medicines are given 1-2 times per day in doses similar to those used to treat depression. Side effects such as dry mouth, lightheadedness, and sedation are the most common. There are many other side effects. Some are serious, such as disturbances of heart rhythm. Talk to your child's doctor about the specific side effects of these drugs.

  • Methylphenidate

This medicine is most commonly used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It also may help certain forms of autism. Methylphenidate is not recommended for children under age six. It might help treat hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention.

Possible side effects include:

  • Addiction
  • Seizures
  • Worsening mental disturbances
  • Chlorpromazine
  • Thioridazine
  • Haloperidol
  • Risperidone
  • Aripiprazole

These drugs are commonly used to treat schizophrenia. But, they are also used for autism. These drugs occasionally have severe side effects. They should be used with great caution. Only risperidone and aripiprazole are FDA-approved to treat autism-related symptoms. Risperidone might help in the treatment of aggressive behavior, deliberate self-injury, and tantrums.

Possible side effects include:

  • Uncontrolled movements
  • High fever
  • Drowsiness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dry mouth
  • Weight gain
  • Liver toxicity

Other medicines may be chosen based on other symptoms. Some people with autism may suffer from seizures. In this case, your doctor may prescribe anticonvulsant medicines.

Clonidine may also help reduce hyperarousal symptoms including hyperactivity, irritability and outbursts, impulsivity, and repetitive behaviors.

In some cases, these medicines may cause unexpected reactions in children with autism. If your child is taking any of these medicines, pay close attention to changes in behavior. Stay in close contact with your child's doctor.

Follow these guidelines when giving your child prescription medication:

  • Give the medicine as directed. Do not change the amount or the schedule.
  • Do not stop giving them without talking to the doctor.
  • Do not share them.
  • Make sure that the measuring device (eg, measuring spoon or cup) has units that match the dose your child is supposed to take. For instance, if you are supposed to give 30 milliliters (ml) of medicine, make sure your measuring cup has milliliter units on it.
  • Ask what results and side effects to expect. Report them to the doctor.
  • Some drugs can be dangerous when mixed. Talk to a doctor or pharmacist if your child is taking more than one drug. This includes over-the-counter medicine and herb or dietary supplements.
  • Plan ahead for refills so you do not run out.

Autism spectrum disorders. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated May 6, 2013. Accessed May 14, 2013.

Autism spectrum disorders (pervasive developmental disorders). National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-pervasive-developmental-disorders/index.shtml. Updated May 14, 2013. Accessed May 14, 2013.

Behrman RE, et al. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2007.

Coghill D. Current issues in child and adolescent psychopharmacology. Part 2: Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, autism, Tourette’s and schizophrenia. Adv Psychiatr Treat. 2003;9:289-299.

Drug Facts and Comparisons. 56th ed. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons; 2001.

Goetz, CG. Goetz’s Textbook of Clinical Neurology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2007.

Rapin I. An 8-year-old boy with autism. JAMA. 2001;285:1749-1757.

Stern TA, et al. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier, 2008.

Last reviewed May 2013 by Kari Kassir, MD; Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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