Putting Down the Prescription Pad

By: Sabiha Toni  

We’ve all heard that parenthood is a stressful and taxing
phase of life, a struggle for an iota of leisure between midnight diaper
changes, airplane impressions, and scrubbing a child’s crayon art—with its
distinct postmodern influence—off of recently painted walls. Parenthood is an
investment of mental and physical efforts, and it is understandable why many
parents feel overwhelmed. In addition to all these foundational duties, parents
of a child on the spectrum may feel that they are even more burdened by
responsibilities of raising a child and also quelling a disorder on the side.

Most families use a combination of treatments to help manage
their children’s ASD, including behavioral therapies. It is often tempting to
associate medication with any type of illness or disorder, whether physical or
mental. It is even more of a lure that medication is often connected to a
quick-fix or a cure. A recent study shows that more than half of autistic
children from ages 6-17 have turned to pharmacological assistance for their
ASDs (Pringle, Colpe, Blumberg, Avila, Kogan, 2012). In the case of Autism
Spectrum Disorders, however, there is no medicinal miracle. So why are so many
parents turning to pharmacology as a treatment?

Medication is not prescribed as a primary means of treatment.
When additional support is needed for severe symptoms or when behavioral
therapies fail, certain medications can help integrate a child into home or
school settings (Rapin, Tuchman, 2008). Some types of medications include:

  • Antipsychotic drugs: are generally used to treat
    psychosis in schizophrenic or bipolar patients. It can also be prescribed to
    manage certain unwanted behaviors in autistic individuals. Recently,
    risperidone has been approved by the FDA as a prescription antipsychotic that
    helps manage behaviors such as irritability, hyperactivity, aggression and
    self-injury (Pesaturo, 2009).
  • Psychostimulants: enhance alertness and are
    sometimes used to treat inattentiveness, impulsiveness and hyperactivity in ASD
    patients (Nickels, Katusic, Colligan, Weaver, Voigt, Barberesi, 2008).
  • Antidepressants: block certain chemicals in the
    brain from being reabsorbed and broken down, such as norepinephrine and serotonin,
    so that their effects last longer. These can be prescribed for autistic
    patients who show signs of depression or anxiety (Hurwitz, Blackmore, Hazell,
    Williams, Woolfenden, 2012).

Resorting to pharmacological treatments can seem like an
appealing method of dealing with ASDs, especially to overwhelmed parents and
family members. However, medication does not resolve the core complications of
ASDs, which include difficulties in social and communicative aspects. There are
a variety of symptoms associated with different disorders within the spectrum,
so there is no single medication that alleviates the signs of all autistic
disorders. Since many of those taking prescription drugs for autism are
children, it is also important to consider the side effects of these
medications. Not all children respond in the same way to psychoactive drugs,
and medications may hinder long-term development in autistic children (Rapin,
Tuchman 2008). It is essential to consult a doctor about the pros and cons of
medical treatment, and to continue behavioral therapies alongside
pharmacological ones, so that an optimal treatment plan can be designed for
each person.


Hurwitz, R., Blackmore, R., Hazell, P., Williams, K.,
Woolfenden, S. Tricyclic antidepressents for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in
children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012; 3.

Nickels, K.C., Katusic, S.K., Colligan, R.C., Weaver, A.L.,
Voigt, R.G., Barbaresi, W.J. Stimulant medication treatment of target behaviors
in children with autism: a population based study. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2008;
29(2): 75-81.

Pesaturo, K.A. Risperidone (Risperdal) for management of
autistic disorder. Am Fam Physician. 2009; 79(12): 1104–1107.

Pringle, B.A., Colpe, L.J., Blumberg, S.J., Avila, R.M.,
Kogan, M.D. Diagnostic History and Treatment of School-aged Children with
Autism Spectrum Disorder and Special Health Care Needs. NCHS Data Brief, Center
for Disease Control. 2012; 97.

Rapin, I., Tuchman, RF. Autism: definition, neurobiology,
screening, diagnosis. Pediatr Clin N Am. 2008; 55: 1129-1146.

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