While there are a host of different treatments for helping children with autism to better communicate with their peers and family members along with fitting in with other children, holistic methods such as essential oils and diets are often just part of a greater treatment plan. Ideally, medicines are best used in conjunction with other behavioral therapies, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis and the Early Start Denver Model.
However, while there do exist a number of currently available medicines that can help in the treatment of autism, medicine that manages its core symptoms—communication difficulties, social challenges, and repetitive behavior—have long been unavailable and the existing medicines on the market only partially treat these symptoms.
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration has approved two medicines that treat irritability associated with autism—risperidone and aripiprazole—the three core characteristics of autism remain unmet. However, these medicines are still beneficial as relieving irritability can lead to a decline in tantrums, aggressive behavior, self-injurious behavior while also improving sociability.
And yet, a silver lining remains on the horizon as current research into the biology that cause autistic symptoms continues to advance. This has made it possible for researchers to begin testing compounds that may help normalize crucial brain functions involved in autism. In early trials, scientists have found that that several compounds with different mechanisms of action have great potential for clinical use, and many are now in clinical trials.
While this certainly a cause for excitement for helping to make real improvements in the lives of people with autism, we will still have to wait a number of years until enough drug studies are conducted to provide insight into the safety and effectiveness to warrant FDA approval of the drugs.
Today, most medicines prescribed to ease autism’s disabling symptoms are used “off label,” meaning that their FDA approval is for other, sometimes-related conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sleep disturbances or depression. Such off-label use is common in virtually all areas of medicine and is usually done to relieve significant suffering in the absence of sufficiently large and targeted studies.
An example in autism would be the class of medicines known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), including fluoxetine. Several of these medicines are FDA-approved for the treatment of anxiety disorders and depression, in children as well as adults. Although large clinical trials have yet to demonstrate their effectiveness, parents and clinicians have found that they can ease social difficulties among some people with autism.
Naltrexone is another medication is another FDA-approved medicine that is traditionally used for the treatment of alcohol and opioid dependence. For children with autism, it can be quite effective at reducing repetitive and self-injurious behavior in both children and adults with autism.
Of course, these medicines are not effective for everyone and any parent trying to find medications that can help their child will often have to go through a lengthy process of trial and error. But as research and studies continue to unlock the neurological secrets to managing the core symptoms of autism, there is a very good chance that more reliable and effective medicinal treatments are on the horizon.