More than half of school-age children with autism in the U.S. take mood-altering drugs as doctors increasingly target the broad range of psychiatric symptoms tied to the ailment, a report found.
The survey, the first of its kind by the National Institute of Mental Health, found that 56 percent of those age 6 to 17 with autism, were on one or more drugs normally given for disorders such as anxiety, depression, psychosis or hyperactivity.
The condition, considered rare before 1980, affects about 1 in 88 U.S. children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study found about a third of children received stimulants, a quarter anti-anxiety or mood-stabilizers and 20 percent anti-depressants. Others got sleep, anti-psychotic or anti-seizure drugs.
“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.
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.
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.
“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 health-care 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.