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What Works to Treat Autism?

Studies Detail Evidence Behind Medication, Behavioral Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorders


In the study that looked at medications, researchers reviewed studies of antipsychotics, serum serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and stimulant medications, which are generally used to decrease symptoms like aggression, repetitive behaviors, self-injury, and severe tantrums.

They found good evidence that two antipsychotic drugs, Risperdal and Abilify, decreased “challenging” behaviors like irritability, agitation, crying, hyperactivity, and noncompliance, compared to placebos.

But there were significant side effects reported with the use of these medications, including weight gain, drowsiness, and symptoms such as tremors, involuntary movements, and rigidity.

Though trials of the SSRI Prozac and the stimulant Ritalin showed potential positive effects on repetitive behaviors and hyperactivity, the reviewers declared current evidence to be insufficient to recommend their use.

Early Intensive Behavioral Interventions

Intensive behavioral therapies, where a therapist or parent works one on one with an autistic child for more than 25 hours a week over several years, have made recent headlines as studies have shown that these approaches may yield substantial improvements in IQ, language, and interpersonal skills.

But when reviewers sat down to compare apples to apples in this range of different approaches, they found themselves looking at mixed fruit.

“When you start talking about interventions that are primarily behavioral or educational in nature that are delivered for many hours a week over the course of a year or two, there are so many factors that need to be brought into that comparison that it is very tricky,” Warren says.

“What we do see is a body of work that suggests that yes, in fact, young children with autism spectrum disorders who do receive early intensive intervention do show or tend to show benefit,” he says, “But there are some who show much more benefit than others. And there are some interventions where the effects are very modest, and some subgroups are showing tremendous gains.”

Researchers looked at three broad categories of therapies. The first was the so-called University of California at Los Angeles/Lovaas approach, where therapists work with children at least 25 hours a week to try to combat specific behaviors and deficits associated autism.

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