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Autism Spectrum Disorder

Putting Down the Prescription Pad

Sabiha Toni

By: Sabiha Toni  

We’ve all heard that parenthood is a stressful and taxing phase of life, a struggle for an iota of leisure between midnight diaper changes, airplane impressions, and scrubbing a child’s crayon art—with its distinct postmodern influence—off of recently painted walls. Parenthood is an investment of mental and physical efforts, and it is understandable why many parents feel overwhelmed. In addition to all these foundational duties, parents of a child on the spectrum may feel that they are even more burdened by responsibilities of raising a child and also quelling a disorder on the side.


Most families use a combination of treatments to help manage their children’s ASD, including behavioral therapies. It is often tempting to associate medication with any type of illness or disorder, whether physical or mental. It is even more of a lure that medication is often connected to a quick-fix or a cure. A recent study shows that more than half of autistic children from ages 6-17 have turned to pharmacological assistance for their ASDs (Pringle, Colpe, Blumberg, Avila, Kogan, 2012). In the case of Autism Spectrum Disorders, however, there is no medicinal miracle. So why are so many parents turning to pharmacology as a treatment?

Medication is not prescribed as a primary means of treatment. When additional support is needed for severe symptoms or when behavioral therapies fail, certain medications can help integrate a child into home or school settings (Rapin, Tuchman, 2008). Some types of medications include:

  • Antipsychotic drugs: are generally used to treat psychosis in schizophrenic or bipolar patients. It can also be prescribed to manage certain unwanted behaviors in autistic individuals. Recently, risperidone has been approved by the FDA as a prescription antipsychotic that helps manage behaviors such as irritability, hyperactivity, aggression and self-injury (Pesaturo, 2009).
  • Psychostimulants: enhance alertness and are sometimes used to treat inattentiveness, impulsiveness and hyperactivity in ASD patients (Nickels, Katusic, Colligan, Weaver, Voigt, Barberesi, 2008).
  • Antidepressants: block certain chemicals in the brain from being reabsorbed and broken down, such as norepinephrine and serotonin, so that their effects last longer. These can be prescribed for autistic patients who show signs of depression or anxiety (Hurwitz, Blackmore, Hazell, Williams, Woolfenden, 2012).

Resorting to pharmacological treatments can seem like an appealing method of dealing with ASDs, especially to overwhelmed parents and family members. However, medication does not resolve the core complications of ASDs, which include difficulties in social and communicative aspects. There are a variety of symptoms associated with different disorders within the spectrum, so there is no single medication that alleviates the signs of all autistic disorders. Since many of those taking prescription drugs for autism are children, it is also important to consider the side effects of these medications. Not all children respond in the same way to psychoactive drugs, and medications may hinder long-term development in autistic children (Rapin, Tuchman 2008). It is essential to consult a doctor about the pros and cons of medical treatment, and to continue behavioral therapies alongside pharmacological ones, so that an optimal treatment plan can be designed for each person.


Hurwitz, R., Blackmore, R., Hazell, P., Williams, K., Woolfenden, S. Tricyclic antidepressents for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012; 3.

Nickels, K.C., Katusic, S.K., Colligan, R.C., Weaver, A.L., Voigt, R.G., Barbaresi, W.J. Stimulant medication treatment of target behaviors in children with autism: a population based study. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2008; 29(2): 75-81.

Pesaturo, K.A. Risperidone (Risperdal) for management of autistic disorder. Am Fam Physician. 2009; 79(12): 1104–1107.

Pringle, B.A., Colpe, L.J., Blumberg, S.J., Avila, R.M., Kogan, M.D. Diagnostic History and Treatment of School-aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Special Health Care Needs. NCHS Data Brief, Center for Disease Control. 2012; 97.

Rapin, I., Tuchman, RF. Autism: definition, neurobiology, screening, diagnosis. Pediatr Clin N Am. 2008; 55: 1129-1146.