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Nearly Two-Thirds Of Kids With Autism On Meds


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Despite limited evidence supporting the practice, researchers say nearly two-thirds of children with autism are taking at least one psychotropic drug.

In a review of medical and pharmacy claims data for 33,565 kids with autism between 2001 and 2009, researchers found that 64 percent of children on the spectrum were prescribed at least one psychotropic medication.

What’s more, the study published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, found that 35 percent of kids with the developmental disorder were given two or more types of drugs simultaneously and 15 percent were taking at least three.

Older children and those with co-occurring conditions like seizures, attention-deficit disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder or depression were more likely to be taking psychotropic drugs, the study found.

Meanwhile, children with autism living in the Northeast and West were less likely to be taking medication while those in the South had higher odds of being prescribed one or more psychotropic drugs, the findings indicated.

The regional trends may point to a lack of behaviorally-based treatment options in some areas of the country, the researchers said.

“Despite minimal evidence of the effectiveness or appropriateness of multi-drug treatment of ASD, psychotropic medications are commonly used, singly and in combination, for ASD and its co-occurring conditions,” wrote the team of researchers from Drexel University, OptumInsight, The Lewin Group and OptumHealth Behavioral Solutions in the study. They said the findings point to an immediate need to establish “standards of care” around the presciption of psychotropic medications for those with autism.

A previous study of more than 60,000 children with autism insured by Medicaid found that 56 percent were taking psychotropic medications. The findings are similar to those of the current study — which included only privately-insured kids — suggesting that children with autism are being advised to take the drugs at similar rates regardless of their insurer, the researchers said.

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Comments (18 Responses)

  1. Laura says:

    Are there currently any studies being done about the negative effects of medication on these children? It scares me that more behaviorally based treatment is not being done. Hopefully it will become a standard rather than a privilege soon!

  2. Robin Dodds says:

    My son is taking Abilify for irritability associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. We have never been able to get behavioral services for him without paying out of pocket as he is “too high functioning” to qualify for regional center services, and somehow doesn’t qualify for school-based interventions. We want for him to have long lasting friendships and handle frustration and transition well, so we medicate and deal with the constant hunger and tiredness to help him as best we can.

  3. Laura says:

    We tried to keep our now 23 year old Autistc daughter with MR off of these as long as we could. Highschool for her and us was a living nightmare! She started having major meltdowns during her 4 years there and we decided to medicate to stop them, but they only got worse. At that time we didn’t know she had aspbergers until 2 years ago when her now therapist told us that she has it. Come to find out she was and still is shisophrenic. It has taken almost 4 years to get her on the right meds. There is a link between Shisophrenia and autism. That’s what scientists need to study!!!

  4. Whitney says:


    Asperger is a form of high functioning autism and it is shown that person has above adverage intelligence and even genius level. Mental Retardation that can occurs in autism but not in Aspergers. So if your daughter is autistic it does not mean she has Aspergers. I am not impress with your councilor if they do not know the distinction. Asperger is part of the ASD which means Austism Spectrum Disorder but it is small part but it is not separate diagnosis. I am not sure what schizophernia has to do with your daughter but I do think you need second opinion.

    The meltdowns probably due to sensory overlord that daughter is suffering from. Autism the senses are heighten to degree where it does become like torture cloth can hurt our skin, different pitches we can not discriminate from the sound. It seems you rather medicate instead of desensitize your daughter from sensory overlord. You do need research autism to know the basic fundamentals. In visual colors some more brilliant can hurt the eyes. This means no matter how much medication you give will not stop meltdowns in fact the meds might even enhance the cause. Your daughter brain fundamental wired differently where the drugs will not stop the cause but enhances the senses. Awareness can control what the brain perceives stimili and also discern what is important what is not. Drugs can take away the filtering process which not that great in autistics to began with. As well as creating stronger filter. Most of these drugs were done on people who are nuero-typical this means non-autistics. So the long term effects are unknown.

    You would need a nuero-pschologist that specialize with autism.

  5. Whitney says:

    People often confuse the term Mental Retardation with reading emotions of others. The diagnoses of Mental Retardation is referred to intellectual disabled. To meet this diagnoses a person has to have an IQ of 77 or less it has nothing to do with EQ.

    The other problem is that insurance is paying for the drugs for the children. It means that if a person insurance is paying the doctor to prescribe medication where it might not be needed. So the doctor is compromise to give a misdiagnoses and medication that will have little impact on the person health regardless the medical condition. This means the doctor is no longer have patient best interest at heart

  6. Pam says:

    It scares me to think that a one size fits all treatment plan is being discussed for these kids. Each person needs to be treated individually based on their needs so that he/she can reach their potential.

  7. Marla says:

    When we lived in Chicago I couldn’t even get a diagnosis for ASD. I went to several doctors. I don’t remember anyone even telling me about ABA therapy. It was when we moved to California that someone told me about having a behaviorist to help. In Chicago, the psychiatrist and pediatrician encouraged the prescription of different drugs to help with behavior, but in the end they changed his personality too much. It is unfortunate that only children with a autism/ASD diagnosis can get the behavioral therapy covered by insurance. We need to better educate medical professionals to see the many faces of autism.

  8. Laura says:

    Whitney, My daughter with ASD is MR. She has been seen by three different Neurologists in the past 23 years of her life. Her now therapist said she had ASD because one of the symptoms is that when she talks to you she can’t look you straight in the eye when doing so. The meds are for her shisophrenia not for ASD. She is much different now than back then. She sees and hears people that aren’t there. She can’t take any stimulant meds for ADD either. Most people who have Shisophtenia9SP?) We always believed she was autistic because she would flap her arms at times and contort her face while walking in a crowded building like a shopping mall. No DR. would ever give a Autism diagnosis neither would any teacher. They were all afraid of getting sued.

  9. Whitney says:

    It is not meant as an insult Laura. I do not know enough about schizophernia to make any opinion. I also not of aware of any connection to autism with schizophernia that means there may be a connection I have no knowledge of. I am not sure of autism having a symptom you have a describe either. Again it is possibility. ASD is a spectrum disorder meaning a broad range of symptoms do fall under it. The uniting factor is lack of emotion to point or sensing emotions in others. To get a diagnosis it need done by psychologist or nuero-psychocologist. The later is a combination of nuerologist and psychologist. I do not think you can get a diagnosis from nuerologist. If you want her tested autism you have to go to psychologist not a medical doctor.

  10. Whitney says:

    I am surprise where you got the diagnosis for schizophernia is the same place you get for autistic. Most autistics would not have motor skills to flap their arms. In fact some have the same motor skills of cerebral palsy. Moving takes concentrated effort but it is possible for your daughter to have autism. Poor Motor skills (grand and fine), balance, lack of eye contact, lack of intuitive skills, un-expressive face, attention detail, sensory issues, and general emotions are part of symptoms of autism. Not all people with autism have those symptoms but even high and low functioning they do share interest for detail and fondness routine and structure. I listed the common symptoms of autism.

  11. Suzanne B. says:

    I’m glad that someone is reviewing this data and asking the questions–namely, are the treatments for typically developing children with brain-based disorders (anxiety, epilepsy, ADHD, depression, etc.) also effective and appropriate for children with autism who exhibit symptoms of those same brain-based disorders? Our son’s pediatric psychiatrist believes they are based on his experience leading an autism treatment program at a major research university. As a parent of a 9yo boy with ASD (Asperger’s) and ADHD, I would love to add additional behaviorally based treatments to my son’s toolkit (beyond what I’ve already learned in my 6 years researching this stuff as an autism parent). As the authors suggest, expense is an issue, as is time and energy–one or two hours a week at $125/hour after he has already spent 7 hours trying to focus all day and fit in some modified homework each night? My son has been in highly specialized public inclusion education since he was diagnosed at 4 years old, with the support of skilled special ed teachers, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and Board Certified Behavior Analysts, etc. Like most school-based programs the emphasis is on interventions that improve his ability to interact with peers and attend in an academic setting. As his parents, we also want the interventions and supports we provide him to make social interactions outside of school more fulfilling. So we chose to use medication for his ADHD symptoms. Our son still needs supports at school and sometimes we need to call in the school district’s BCBAs to assist with behavior challenges that arise. But the medications appear to significantly reduce his impulsivity and trouble attending to nonpreferred tasks. We no longer fear that an uncontrollable impulse will have him running out into traffic (though we remain hyper-vigilant). He can participate more fully with his classroom of peers, though he still requires sensory breaks. We can take him to the neighborhood pool with greater confidence that he will stay safe. Yes, I’d like more research. But in the meantime we have a child to raise and we have to make decisions before that research will be concluded.

  12. Cheri says:

    We were essentially coerced into giving our then 5 year-old non-verbal child ( who was struggling with sensory issues, impulsivity and transitioning, but not agressive) Risperdal by a neurologist we consulted to rule out seizures. Within a short time he did develop seizures ( a known side effect of the drug) and thus we began a journey of several years. Over time the psychotropic med dose was increased and eventually he evidenced signs of toxicity and we had the nightmarish experience of weaning him off, only to experience aggression and behavioral challenges worse than any he ever experienced pre-medication. A new medication was initiated ( at age 8!!) and of course the seizures never went away. Eventually we left that neurologist and carefully weaned him off the psychotropic med altogether. At 15 he does not have significant or even minor behavioral challenges, although he is still non-verbal and struggles with learning difficulties. We treat him with medication only for his seizures and the associated sleep difficulties.

    Medical “experts” who make assumptions about people with ASD do much harm by assuming that all will or do exhibit behavioral problems. Parents of younger children on the autism spectrum seeking support and direction from physicians would do well to consider psychotropic medication as an option available when other methods have been tried and they offer a significant improvement unavailable by any other means.

  13. Kristina says:

    Good for you Robin and Laura. Having worked in this field since 1986 and as a Behaviorist, I truly believe that anything that assists an individual to have some peace in this life, including medication, is a blessing. Behavioral treatment works only if it is available and is used by EVERYONE who regularly and consistently supports the person w ASD. Sometimes medication is needed just to allow the person to participate in a behavior program or teaching strategy. Medication can be titrated and is never the only answer, however, we don’t always have influence over daily life but we can support someone to have proper treatment to the best of our ability. Don’t give up! Continue to advocate for you loved one!

  14. Laurie LaGoe says:

    Lucky for me I wasn’t on forced psychotropic medications throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. I had a hard enough time being forced to worry about what people think and about my behavior constantly. As long as I can remember I had a strong aversion to people. I still to this day respect animals more the people, especially main steam conformist types.

  15. SueAnne says:

    As a parent of an 18 year old with both ADHD and Asperger’s I have to say that I felt I was doing a dis-service to my child by not doing all that I could. He has for many years and continues to take Ritalin for the ADHD and at age 14 began Risperdone for the Asperger’s. I only wish I would have known of the Asperger’s sooner and gotten him on that Risperdone. As a high school freshman he was diagnosed with the Asperger’s and he struggled up til that time. Once he began the Risperdone it was like a new person. He made friends and found his niche in school. I am not a huge fan of medicating however is it better to have your child struggle? It needs to be individualized for each person (parents and child).

  16. Dr. Patrick V. Suglia says:

    Why should there be any studies? The focus is on how profitable it is for the pharmaceutical industry to sell their drugs, not on the health of those who take the drugs.

  17. Misty says:

    I have a 7 yr old Aspie that has been on Abilify for 2 yrs. It was a life saver in bringing his anxiety to a level he felt he could control. However, he is also battling low self esteem and depression because he’s VERY aware he’s “different” and struggles with relationships. The docs decided he needed anti-depressants as well and it has caused a MAJOR regression in his behaviors. I think to some degree the antipsychotics are great, but it is CRUCIAL that behavior therapy and sensory integration become a part of the DAILY routines to have total success. The meds assist in coping mechanisms but there is so much more needed. and i too am terrified what permanent effects this will have on my young, developing son in the long term.

  18. Dorothy says:

    My son has Asperger’s Syndrome and Intermitten Explosive Disorder, Prozac cut his rages in half, everything else that was tried either made him worse or caused weight gain or other physical problems. In spite of this the Doctors always wanted to try something else or add something to it. After five years on medication, he and I decided that it was time for him to feel the anger and learn how to deal with it. It has been a year and a half, he is joining in on conversations. There are people who have known him for years that have never heard him speak, that he now talks to. He still has stressful moments, where his mouth won’t work, but he’s doing good. It has also taken this long to get the meds out of his system. I have noticed recently that he has gone from a stiff, insecure, trying to hide, individual, to being my funny, impulsive, mischievous kid again. As far as having a therapist that knows what to do to help him, I don’t think they exist, the only reason we go is because we have to, to receive services, There are things that he will never be able to do, fly on a plane, why would I want to even try to put him through something that would cause him such stress? By taking him out of stressful situations, he learned to relax. I believe it made the most difference for him. Instead of forcing him into a situation that caused him extreme stress, and saying he has to do this because everyone else does, if we keep making him do it his brain will retrain, that’s therapy talk, out of the book, not in reality.

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