Autism Treatment: Biomedical & Dietary Approaches
Because autism is a spectrum disorder and no one method alone is usually effective in treating autism, professionals and families have found that a combination of treatments may be effective in treating symptoms and behaviors that make it hard for individuals with autism to function. These may include psychosocial and pharmacological interventions.
While there are no drugs, vitamins or special diets that can correct the underlying neurological problems that seem to cause autism, parents and professionals have found that some drugs used for other disorders are sometimes effective in treating some aspects of behaviors associated with autism.
Changes to diet and the addition of certain vitamins or minerals may also help with behavioral issues. Over the past 10 years, there have been claims that adding essential vitamins such as B6 and B12 and removing gluten and casein from a child's diet, may improve digestion, allergies and sociability. Not all researchers and experts agree about whether these therapies are effective or scientifically valid.
Learn More About:
- Vitamins & Minerals
- Dietary Interventions
There are a number of medications, developed for other conditions, that have been found effective in treating some of the symptoms and behaviors frequently found in individuals with autism. Some of these include: hyperactivity, impulsivity, attention difficulties, and anxiety. The goal of medications is to reduce these behaviors to allow the individual with autism to take advantage of educational and behavioral treatments.
When medication is being discussed or prescribed, it's important to:
- Ask about the safety of its use in children with autism
- What is the appropriate dosage?
- How is it administered (pills, liquid)?
- What are the long-term consequences?
- Are there possible side effects?
- How will my child be monitored and by whom?
- What laboratory tests are required before starting the drug and during treatment?
- Are there possible interactions with other drugs, vitamins or foods?
Given the complexity of medications, drug interactions, and the unpredictability of how each patient may react to a particular drug, parents should seek out and work with a medical doctor with an expertise in the area of medication management.
What Medications are Available?
There are a number of medications that are frequently used for individuals with autism to address certain behaviors or symptoms. Some have studies to support their use, while others do not.
The Autism Society of America does not endorse any specific medication. The information provided here is meant as an overview of the types of medications sometimes prescribed. Be sure to consult a medical professional for more information.
Serotonin re-uptake inhibitors have been effective in treating depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and anxiety that are sometimes present in autism. Because researchers have consistently found elevated levels of serotonin in the bloodstream of one-third of individuals with autism, these drugs could potentially reverse some of the symptoms of serotonin dysregulation in autism. Three drugs that have been studied are clomipramine (Anafranil), fluvoxamine (Luvox) and fluoxetine (Prozac). Studies have shown that they may reduce the frequency and intensity of repetitive behaviors, and may decrease irritability, tantrums and aggressive behavior. Some children have also shown improvements in eye contact and responsiveness.
Other drugs, such as Elavil, Wellbutrin, Valium, Ativan and Xanax have not been studied as much but may have a role in treating the behavioral symptoms. However, all these drugs have potential side effects, which should be discussed before treatment is started.
Anti-psychotic medications have been the most widely studied of the psychopharmacologic agents in autism over the past 35 years. Originally developed for treating schizophrenia, these drugs have been found to decrease hyperactivity, stereotypical behaviors, withdrawal, and aggression in individuals with autism. Four that have been approved by the FDA are clozapine (Clozaril), risperidone (Risperdal), olanzapine (Zyprexa) and quetiapine (Seroquel). Only risperidone has been investigated in a controlled study of adults with autism. Like the antidepressants, these drugs all have potential side effects, including sedation.
Stimulants, such as Ritalin, Adderall, and Dexedine, used to treat hyperactivity in children with ADHD have also been prescribed for children with autism. Although few studies have been done, they may increase focus, and decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity in autism, particularly in higher-functioning children. However, dosages need to be carefully monitored, because behavioral side effects are often dose-related.
Increased use of medications to treat autism has highlighted the need for more studies of these drugs in children. The National Institute of Mental Health has established a network of Research Units on Pediatric Psychopharmacology (RUPPs) that combine expertise in psychopharmacology and psychiatry. Located at several research centers, they are intended to become a national resource that will expedite clinical trials in children. Five groups are specifically funded to evaluate treatments for autism, studying dose range and regimen of medications, as well as their mechanisms of action, safety, efficacy, and effects on cognition, behavior, and development. For example, the RUPP at Kennedy Krieger Institute is conducting a study on the efficacy of methylphenidate (Ritalin) in children and adolescents with Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD).
If you are considering the use of medications, contact a medical professional experienced in treating autism to learn of possible side effects. People with autism may have very sensitive nervous systems and normally recommended dosage may need to be adjusted. Even the use of large doses of vitamins should be done under the supervision of a medical doctor.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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