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What are psychotropic drugs doing to autistic children?

Published: Friday, Dec. 6 2013 8:55 a.m. MST

Recent research indicates that a good majority of autistic children are being treated with psychotropic drugs, despite a lack of evidence supporting what they actually do.

Philippa Banks, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Rob Gorski believes in science and and the power of modern medicine. Despite his research, Gorski still wrestled with the idea of medicating his then 6-year-old autistic son, Gavin. What it ultimately took, Gorski said, was a leap of faith.

For parents like Gorski, a resident of Canton, Ohio, the choice to medicate a child is a difficult one, and as the father of three boys with autism spectrum disorder, he should know.

The gap between parents who do medicate their children and parents who don't is growing wider, thanks to new research about the uncertain future of mediating autistic children published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The study found that a large percentage of children are being treated with psychotropic drugs or mood-altering drugs like stimulants or antidepressants.

According to the study that examined insurance records of 33,000 children on the autism spectrum from 2001 to 2009, 64 percent had been prescribed and filled a mood-altering, or psychotropic drug.

The concern behind prescribing drugs like this is a simple one: experts don't know what the drugs do. There is no evidence for the safety and effectiveness of these drugs, according to the study.

The retrospective research, released last month, also found 35 percent of the sample had been prescribed and filled two mood-altering drugs from different classes.

Psychotropic drugs are categorized into classes because of their widespread use in the mental health field. They are categorized into stimulants, antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood-stabilizers and anxiolytics.

The same study showed that 15 percent of autistic children in the sample had been prescribed and filled prescriptions from three classes.

Perhaps more concerning is that even less research exists about the effects of prescribing multiple psychotropic drugs, according to the study.

Treating the symptoms

Why then would doctors prescribe psychotropic drugs to children, some under age 6?

For starters, these medications are not as a treatment for autism.

Currently, no drug exists that will cure autism or treat the core symptoms. However, doctors will prescribe psychotropic drugs to help manage a child on the spectrum who suffers from inattention, depression, seizures or high energy levels, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The only psychotropic drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are risperidone and aripiprazole, which are used to treat symptoms of irritability and agression, according to the study.

But the use of psychotropic drugs are far more common. Doctors may also perscribe other medications "off-label" to children as a "trial-and-error" type of approach to help remedy the child's symptoms.

"Since autism is not a disorder that responds to medication, the only time I would medicate a child with autism is if they had another treatable diagnosis that was significantly impacting their ability to function," said Kari Herrmann, clinical director of pediatric services at Utah State Hospital.

And for Gorski, medications — on or off label — could be the only hope for his son.

Gavin was originally diagnosed with Aspberger's syndrome in 2005. That diagnosis has since been changed to autism. But Gavin is special because in addition to his developmental setbacks, he has what Gorski calls a laundry list of other medical conditions.

"Without medication, (Gavin) couldn't exist," said Gorski, who has become a sought after expert on autism disorder. He writes about his experiences for Sharecare, a website for the Dr. Oz Show and has his own blog on dealing with autism.

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