No medication is available to treat the core symptoms of ASD, but medication may be able to treat some of the related symptoms, such as:
- Repetitive thoughts and behaviour.
- Aggressive behaviour, such as tantrums or self-harming.
One type of medication used in the UK is the class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These work by changing the levels of a chemical called serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is known to affect behaviour and mood.
However, SSRIs are used only extremely rarely to treat children and young people, and only by specialist consultants such as a child psychiatrist.
It is more common for specialists to use melatonin or other prescribed medication to help sleep (which is commonly disturbed in ASD). Specialist consultants may also use stimulant medication such as methylphenidate for young people who also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
It is not possible to predict how an individual will respond to SSRIs and whether they are a suitable treatment, but the clinical use of SSRIs has increased greatly in the last decade.
Examples of SSRIs include:
Some children with ASD who are taking SSRIs can suddenly have a sharp rise in serotonin levels. This can trigger a group of side effects known as serotonin syndrome.
Symptoms of mild to moderate serotonin syndrome include:
- Muscle twitching.
If your child has any of the above symptoms, stop their medication and seek immediate advice from your GP. If this is not possible, call NHS 24 on 111.
Symptoms of severe serotonin syndrome include:
- A high temperature of 39.4C (103F) or above.
- Seizures (fits).
- Irregular heartbeat.
If your child has any of these severe symptoms, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.