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Medications and Autism

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Introduction

Medications (also known as pharmaceutical drugs, medicines, or medicaments) can be loosely defined as chemical substances intended for use in the medical diagnosis, cure, treatment, or prevention of disease. Some of these substances, such as piracetam, are also sometimes taken as nutritional supplements.

Many different kinds of medication are used to treat autistic people. These include but are not limited to: anticonvulsants, antidepressants, antipsychotics, anxiolytics, hormones, immune globulins, psychostimulant medications and many others. None of these medications was initially designed specifically to treat autism, but instead target other conditions such as high blood pressure, epilepsy, ADHD and drug dependency.

There are various ways in which these medications can be classified, such as by chemical properties, mode or route of administration, biological system affected, or therapeutic effects. We have categorised them by the principal biological system affected because most medications designed to help autistic people target the central nervous system and it makes sense to group these together.

Medications are available in many forms including tablets, capsules, liquids, infusions and injections. The same medication may have several different brand names. For example, the antipsychotic haloperidol is marketed as Dozic, Haldol, and Serenace.

Evidence

Research suggests that most medications have no effect on the core features of autism. However, some medications may have some benefits. For example,

  • Some medications (such as some of the newer, atypical antipsychotics like risperidone) may be effective in treating some of the challenging behaviours shown by some people on the autism spectrum.
  • Methylphenidate may be beneficial for the treatment of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention in some children and young people on the autism spectrum. 
  • Melatonin may be effective in reducing some sleep disturbances in some people on the autism spectrum.

Very little high-quality research evidence supports the effectiveness of most other medications for treating the other issues facing people on the autism spectrum

Risks and safety

  • Some medications are very powerful, with many potential side effects and contraindications (specific situations where the medication may be harmful, such as if the person is taking other medication, or if the person has other conditions). For this reason they should only be obtained on prescription from a paediatrician or psychiatrist.
  • Many medications contain active ingredients that can have strong effects on the mind and the body. For example, antipsychotics can cause side effects such as movement disorders, dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation, dizziness or light-headedness, and weight gain. More rarely, antipsychotics may cause more serious side effects such as changes to blood sugar levels or blood lipid levels, neuroleptic malignant syndrome (fever, faster breathing, sweating, muscle stiffness and reduced consciousness), and cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heart beat).
  • Some substances can interact with some medications in ways that can cause problems. For example, vitamin B6 can reduce the effectiveness of some anticonvulsants, such as sodium valproate, carbamazepine and phenytoin.
  • Some medications may be unsuitable for certain groups of people. For example, the mental health charity Mind recommends you should use antipsychotics with caution if you have other medical conditions, such as liver or kidney disease, cardiovascular (heart and circulation) disease, or a family history of diabetes.

Central Nervous System Medications

The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. The brain plays a central role in the control of most bodily functions, including awareness, movements, sensations, thoughts, speech, and memory. The spinal cord carries signals between the brain and nerves in the rest of the body.

There are a number of medications which are designed to improve or repair CNS functions and many of these have been suggested as treatments for autistic people.

Those medications include anticonvulsants, antidepressants, antipsychotics, anxiolytics and hypnotics, cholinesterase inhibitors, NMDA receptor antagonists, opioid receptor antagonists, and psychostimulants.

More information

Please see Central Nervous System Medications


Cardiovascular and Respiratory System Medications

The cardiovascular system, also known as the circulatory system includes the heart, blood vessels and blood. The respiratory system includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs.

The two systems are responsible for ensuring the body receives an adequate supply of oxygen and that carbon-dioxide is expelled from the body.

There are a number of medications which are designed to improve or repair cardiovascular and respiratory functions and some of these have been suggested as treatments for autistic people.

They include antihistamines, antihypertensives, calcium channel blockers and diuretics.

More information

Please see Cardiovascular and Respiratory Medications


Endochrine System Medications

The endocrine system is up of various glands such as the hypothalamus gland, pituitary gland, thyroid gland, pineal gland etc..

Glands produce and secrete hormones - chemical substances that regulate the body's growth, metabolism (the physical and chemical processes of the body), and sexual development and function. 

There are a number of medications which are designed to improve or repair the endochrine system and many of these have been suggested as treatments for autistic people.

Those medications include hormones (such as melatonin, oxytocin and secretin) or medications (such as leuprolide) which are designed to change the amount and effect of hormones (such as testosterone).

More information

Please see Endochrine System Medications


Immunology and Infection

The immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body against disease and infections.

The medications in this section are all used to treat problems in the immune system. For example, antibiotics are used to treat, and in some cases prevent, bacterial infections.

A number of these medications have been suggested as treatments for autistic people including antibiotics, antifungals and immune globulins.

More information

Please see Immunology and Infection Medications


Related Pages

Related Glossaries


Quick link:
http://www.researchautism.net/medications
Updated
26 Feb 2019