In Treating Autism, Drugs Often Overshadow Behavior Therapy
Many kids with autism are taking antipsychotics without participating in behavior therapy, new research suggests, despite evidence that medication is most helpful when paired with therapy.
In a study looking at the experiences of more than 5,100 children with autism ages 2 to 17 from across the country, researchers found that the odds of antipsychotic use increase with age.
Just 5 percent of kids ages 2 to 11 took the drugs, but that number rose to nearly 18 percent for those ages 12 to 17, according to findings published in the May issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
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The majority of children on the medications were not participating in behavior therapy.
“It is particularly concerning that for both age groups (2–11 and 12–17 years) over three quarters of children prescribed atypical antipsychotic medications were not receiving behavior therapy,” wrote researchers from the University of Toronto, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Columbia University in their findings.
Just two medications — risperidone, sold as Risperdal, and aripiprazole, or Abilify — are approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat symptoms associated with autism, and none are approved for those under age 5. Nonetheless, the study found 2 percent of the young children studied were prescribed the medication.
Children taking antipsychotics were more likely to feel tired and struggle with being overweight or obese, the study found. Many of the kids were taking multiple medications.
“In children of all ages the decision to medicate should not be taken lightly, and it is particularly important to identify the underlying causes of behavior (i.e., sensory triggers, social environment, coexisting physical disorders, challenges communicating, changes to routine) before turning to medication as a solution,” the researchers wrote.
Further studies are needed to better understand why medications are being prescribed to kids with autism and under what circumstances, they added.