Is it necessary to treat autism with drug medications?

By: Danika Weaver

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a wide range of conditions that involve challenges with social skills, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behavior. The effects of autism on an individual vary from person to person. Likewise, treatment of ASD differs as well. Intervention can involve medicines, behavioral treatments, or both. For many, the best way to treat ASD is by taking medications as well as participating in behavior therapy.

So… Does my child need to take medication or not?

Well, it all depends on what the right option for your child is.

For kids who are on the lower end of the autistic spectrum, behavioral therapy is enough treatment. For those who are higher up on the spectrum, some medications may be necessary due to other factors related to autism. However, that does not mean that one treatment plan is better than the other, or that your child needs to be doing both.

Though 1 in 68 children are on the autistic spectrum, your child has specific needs. Their treatment will be specially tailored for them in order for them to have a better life. Understanding what both behavioral and medicinal treatment do is important in finding which will benefit your child the most in the long run. The majority of children on the autistic spectrum will need behavioral therapy. Like most aspects of the treatment plan, the amount of therapy received is dependent upon the child.

Before we continue into the nitty-gritty details of what each of the two treatment plans consist of, take a look at this pros and cons list of using medication to treat autism symptoms. Use it to take the next step, not to eliminate an option.

Taking Medication


  • Your child may become less irritable.
  • Problem behaviors (self-harm, sensory sensitivity) could improve.
  • Your child may function better at home, school, and in the community.
  • Your child and family might sleep better.
  • Your child may fit in better with other children and make new friends
  • You might feel that you are doing everything possible for your child, which feels good if it comes up with good results.


  • Medicine cannot fully cure autism.
  • Medicine may not help every child with autism.
  • Medicines can be a bit pricey.
  • Your child may experience side effects from the medicine.

Because many who are on the autistic spectrum suffer from other medical conditions such as sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal (GI) distress, and seizures, taking medications is necessary. Treating these conditions can improve attention, learning and other similar behaviors. There are also medicines that are used to treat the main symptoms of autism–communication difficulties, social challenges and repetitive behavior–as well, although it’s hard to come by a medication that effectively treats these symptoms.

Most medications used on autism spectrum patients are “off label” medicines, which means they weren’t created to treat autism itself. A similar scenario would be using seizure medication to treat migraines. Sometimes the prescription gets the job done, but normally, it isn’t that simple. Because no individual is on the exact spot on the autism spectrum as another, it is hard for doctors to prescribe a medication that actually works. Certain medicines do not work for everyone, and all medicines have side effects. When the problems that come with side effects outweigh the benefits of the medication, it’s time to seek other options. Changes in the effectiveness of a medicine can occur as time goes on, even when the dose is not changed because of the development of tolerance (when a drug stops being effective) or sensitization (when side effects worsen) to medicines. Because it sometimes takes multiple attempts of new medications, you might end up dealing out a considerably large bundle of cash. It’s your choice whether it’s best to hold off on medication or to keep looking for the right prescription.

While medications are capable of treating some symptoms of autism, many of the core symptoms can only be treated with behavioral therapy. Scientific studies have shown that early behavioral intervention therapy improves learning in children with autism. While the outcomes of early intervention vary, all children benefit. A number of effective early intervention methods have been developed. Each program has different things to offer, but each program has aspects that are constant across the board.

Highly trained therapists or teachers deliver the intervention in every program. Children are given structured, therapeutic activities for at least 25 hours per week. Therapy sessions are guided by specific learning objectives, and the child’s progress in meeting these objectives is evaluated regularly. This allows the pace of learning to slow down if it is necessary for the child to repeat lessons, or speed up if the child is proficient in a certain skill.

Each intervention focuses on social skills, language and communication, imitation, play skills, daily living and motor skills, which are the main areas that autism affects. The programs give children chances to interact with typically developing peers. Programs also give parents the opportunity to actively engage themselves in the intervention. This helps parents understand how to assist their children in learning and makes kids feel more comfortable in their learning whether they are at therapy, school, or home. The unique needs of the child and their family is respected and valued in each program, with a team that has a physician, speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist available if needed.

In most cases, it is ideal to use medication as a complement to other treatments, not as the sole treatment. The reality is that there is no “perfect treatment.” The steps that should be taken are dependent upon your child. What helps other kids may turn up no results for yours.

It all comes down to trial and error to find the best way to give your child what they need to succeed. As a parent, you want what is best for your child. Don’t be afraid to try whatever it takes to help them. If one treatment doesn’t work, there will always be another option.



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