More than half of autistic children on psychiatric medications
More than half of school-age autistic children in the United States take mood-altering drugs, according to a report, as doctors increasingly target the broad range of psychiatric symptoms associated with the ailment.
The survey, the first of its kind by the National Institute of Mental Health, found that 56 percent of autistic children, age 6 to 17, were on one or more medications used to treat disorders such as anxiety, depression, psychosis or hyperactivity. Also known as autism spectrum disorder, the condition affects about 1 in 88 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and was considered a rare diagnosis before 1980.
"Part of what you're seeing in these numbers is the fact that autism is frequently accompanied by other disorders," said Joseph Horrigan, head of medical research for Autism Speaks, an advocacy group based in New York. "There has been a relative under-appreciation of psychiatric co-morbidity in individuals, especially younger individuals with autism spectrum disorders."
The range of medications prescribed to autistic children may also reflect "absence of clear practice guidelines for psychotropic medication use in children with ASD," the researchers wrote in the report. The study found 32 percent were prescribed stimulants, 26 percent anti-anxiety or mood- stabilizers and 20 percent anti-depressants. Others were taking sleep, anti-psychotic or anti-seizure medications.
Children with autism have impaired social, communication and behavioral development that is usually identified by age 3. The disorder is often accompanied by abnormal cognitive functioning and learning ability. As a result, 9 of 10 children with autism spectrum disorder use one or more services to meet developmental needs, according to the report.
There is no known cause or cure for autism, and there are no drugs on the market to treat the symptoms or causes of the disorder.
"This is very good that physicians are recognizing these additional problems that kids with autism can have," said Randi Hagerman, medical director of University of California, Davis's Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute, in a telephone interview. "The 50 percent who are on treatment for anxiety, or sleep disorders, or ADHD, is probably not high enough."
Hagerman said these medicines can make other behavioral treatments more effective. More than 91 percent of the 1,420 students in the survey used one or more healthcare services, such as speech or occupational therapy. Alleviating anxiety, hyperactivity, or increasing sleep can lessen the effects of autism, she said.
Researchers didn't probe into what indications the children were taking the medications for, Lisa Colpe, the lead author of the study, said in an interview.
An earlier survey in 2010 by advocacy group Autism Speaks showed 27 percent of children enrolled in their network registry were on psychotropic medications.