Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment

Children who have autism spectrum disorders think and function very differently than other children. In most cases, they need special help and coaching to function more successfully in their school and home environments. Treatments for ASD focus on helping children manage in these settings.

Special education services, behavior therapy, speech therapy, and physical or occupational therapy may help the child learn to function more effectively and harmoniously with others. Training and counseling for parents and other family members also may be helpful.

There are no specific medications used to treat autism spectrum disorders. However, children who suffer from anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, or obsessive-compulsive disorder as a result of ASD may benefit from medication to help with these symptoms. When these medications are prescribed, the child will be monitored by his or her health care provider at regular intervals throughout treatment.

To treat depression, drugs such as fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem) may be prescribed. It is important for parents to work closely with the child's health care provider and to fully understand how to monitor the child for side effects of antidepressant medication. In some children and teenagers, these medications may increase suicidal thoughts and actions.

Other side effects that should be reported to the child's health care provider immediately include the following:

  • Aggressive or impulsive behavior
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Increased activity level
  • Increased chattiness
  • Increased depression or anxiety
  • Increased irritability
  • Panic attacks
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Strange moods or behavior changes

Children should be monitored especially closely when they first begin taking antidepressant medication or if the dosage of the medication is changed. These medications should not be discontinued or the dosage changed without consulting a qualified health care provider.

To treat obsessive-compulsive behavior (OCD), clomipramine (Anafranil) may be prescribed. Clomipramine is also an antidepressant and increases the risk for suicidal thoughts and actions in children and teens. Patients should be monitored closely while taking this medication. Side effects that should be reported immediately to the child's health care provider include the following:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Depression
  • Eye pain
  • Hallucinations
  • Increased heart rate
  • Loss of bladder control or difficulty with urination
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Seizures
  • Tiredness
  • Tremors
  • Weakness

The following side effects, which generally are less serious, should be reported to the child's health care provider if they persist or cause particular discomfort:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Intestinal symptoms
  • Loss of memory or difficulty concentrating
  • Nervousness
  • Sinus congestion

These medications should not be discontinued or the dosage changed without consulting a qualified health care provider.

To treat inattentiveness or hyperactivity, stimulants such as methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin) or dextroamphetamine (Dexadrine) may be prescribed. These medications can be habit forming and should be used with caution in patients who have heart problems or psychiatric conditions. The child's health care provider will take a careful health history and perform a medical evaluation before prescribing this medication.

Methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine can interfere with the child's growth and weight gain. If this occurs, the child's health care provider should be contacted right away. The following serious side effects also should be reported immediately:

  • Chest pain
  • Distorted perceptions of reality
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Hallucinations
  • Hives
  • Mood changes
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness in arms or legs
  • Pounding heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Shortness of breath
  • Speech difficulties
  • Vision problems

The following side effects generally are less serious and should be reported to the child's health care provider if they persist or cause particular discomfort:

  • Dry mouth
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shakiness, nervousness, or restlessness
  • Sleep problems

These medications should not be discontinued or the dosage changed without consulting a qualified health care provider.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 06 Jul 2007

Last Modified: 09 Oct 2014