According to Vanderbilt University researchers, there is little evidence backing up the use of medical interventions such as drug treatment to help teens and young adults with autism.
Although many adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorders are being prescribed medications, there is almost no evidence showing that these drugs are doing any good, the researchers said.
Newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 88 children now have an autism spectrum disorder. Boys outnumber girls 5-to-1, which means that about one in 54 boys in the United States has autism.
“We need more research to be able to understand how to treat core symptoms of autism in this population, as well as common associated symptoms such as anxiety, compulsive behaviors and agitation,” said Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, M.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Pharmacology and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator.
“Individuals, families and clinicians currently have to make decisions together, often in a state of desperation, without clear guidance on what might make things better and what might make things worse, and too often, people with autism spectrum disorders end up on one or more medications without a clear sense of whether the medicine is helping.”
This research is part of a larger report on interventions for adolescents and young adults with autism that found there is little evidence to support findings, good or bad, for all therapies currently in use.
The researchers screened over 4,500 studies and reviewed the 32 studies published from January 1980 to December 2011 on therapies for people ages 13 to 30 with autism spectrum disorders. They focused on the outcomes, including harms and adverse effects, of interventions, including medical, behavioral, educational and vocational.
Key findings include:
- Some evidence showed that treatments could improve social skills and educational outcomes such as vocabulary or reading, but the studies were generally small and had limited follow-up;
- Limited evidence supports the use of medical interventions in adolescents and young adults with autism. The most consistent findings were identified for the effects of antipsychotic medications on reducing problem behaviors that tend to occur with autism, such as irritability and aggression. And harms associated with medications included sedation and weight gain.
The researchers conclude that even though cases of autism are on the rise, much remains to be settled when it comes to interventions.
The findings are featured in the Sept. 24 issue of Pediatrics.
Source: Vanderbilt University