Medications to Treat Autism

Medications may be used to treat various symptoms of autism (e.g., attention difficulties, anxiety) and can also be used to treat conditions that may accompany the disorder (e.g., epilepsy).

Depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and anxiety may be treated using antidepressants. These drugs often reduce the frequency and intensity of repetitive behavior; decrease irritability, tantrums, and aggression; and improve eye contact and responsiveness. Side effects include headache, insomnia, dizziness, and drowsiness. Medications include the following:

  • Amitriptyline (Elavil®)
  • Bupropion (Wellbutrin®)
  • Clomipramine (Anafranil®)
  • Fluvoxamine (Luvox®)
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac®)

Benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium®), lorazepam (Ativan®), and alprazolam (Xanax®) may also be used to treat behavioral problems. Side effects include drowsiness, fatigue, lack of muscle coordination (ataxia), and dizziness. Discontinuing these drugs after long-term use may cause withdrawal symptoms including:

  • Abdominal and muscle pain
  • Convulsions and tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting

Antipsychotic medications such as clozapine (Clozaril®), risperidone (Risperdal®), olanzapine (Zyprexa®), and quetiapine (Seroquel®) may decrease hyperactivity, behavioral problems, withdrawal, and aggression in autistic patients. Side effects include the following:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Sedation

Stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin®), amphetamine (Adderall®), and dextroamphetamine (Dexedine®) may also be prescribed for autism. These drugs may increase focus and decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity in high-functioning patients. Prolonged use of stimulants may lead to drug dependence. Side effects are often dose-related and include the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nervousness
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)

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

Published: 01 Mar 2000

Last Modified: 09 Jun 2011