Autism Spectrum Disorder Medication

Updated: Nov 27, 2018
  • Author: James Robert Brasic, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Caroly Pataki, MD  more...
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Medication Summary

The established therapies for autistic disorder are nonpharmacologic. These therapies may include behavioral, educational, and psychological treatment. No pharmacologic agent is effective in the treatment of the core behavioral manifestations of autistic disorder. However, medication may be effective in the treatment of comorbid disorders, including self-injurious behaviors and movement disorders.


Second-Generation Antipsychotics

Class Summary

The atypical antipsychotic agents risperidone and aripiprazole have been approved by the FDA for irritability associated with autistic disorders.

Risperidone (Risperdal, Risperdal Consta, Risperdal M-Tab)

Risperidone is an atypical antipsychotic agent that is indicated for irritability associated with autistic disorder in children and adolescents aged 5-16 years. Risperidone is a mixed serotonin-dopamine antagonist that binds to 5-HT2 with very high affinity and binds to the dopamine D2 receptor with less affinity. Affinity for the dopamine D2 receptor is 20 times lower than that for the 5-HT2 receptor. Risperidone is FDA approved for irritability and aggression in children with ASD, 5 years and older. 

The combination of serotonin antagonism and dopamine antagonism is thought to improve negative symptoms of psychoses and reduce the incidence of extrapyramidal side effects in comparison with conventional antipsychotics.

Aripiprazole (Abilify, Abilify Discmelt)

Aripiprazole is indicated for irritability associated with autistic disorder in children and adolescents aged 6-17 years. Aripiprazole is thought to be a partial dopamine (D2) and serotonin (5-HT1A) agonist, and to antagonize serotonin (5-HT2A). Aripiprazole is available as a tablet, an orally disintegrating tablet, or an oral solution.

Ziprasidone (Geodon)

Ziprasidone, a second-generation antipsychotic drug, is used off-label to treat serious behavior disorders associated with autism, such as self-injurious behavior. It elicits its effects through antagonism of D2, D3, 5-HT2A, 5-HT2C, 5-HT1A, 5-HT1D, and alpha1-adrenergic receptors. In addition, it has a moderate antagonistic effect for histamine H1. It moderately inhibits the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine.


SSRI Antidepressants

Class Summary

SSRIs are widely prescribed for children with autism or a related condition. These agents are used off-label to help with intractable repetitive behaviors, such as compulsion.

Fluoxetine (Prozac)

Fluoxetine selectively inhibits presynaptic serotonin reuptake, with minimal or no effect on the reuptake of norepinephrine and dopamine.

Citalopram (Celexa)

Citalopram enhances serotonin activity by selective reuptake inhibition of serotonin at the neuronal membrane. Dose-dependent QT prolongation has been reported with citalopram. [149, 150] . This agent is contraindicated in patients with congenital long QT syndrome.

Escitalopram (Lexapro)

Escitalopram is an S-enantiomer of citalopram. The mechanism of action is thought to be potentiation of serotonergic activity in the central nervous system (CNS), resulting from the inhibition of CNS neuronal reuptake of serotonin.



Class Summary

Stimulants may be effective for treating hyperactivity associated with autism. The magnitude of response, however, is less than that seen in developmentally normal children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

Methylphenidate (Ritalin, Ritalin SR, Ritalin LA, Concerta) (Williamson et al., 2017)

Methylphenidate is thought to block the reuptake of norepinephrine and dopamine into the presynaptic neuron and increase the release of these monoamines into the extraneuronal space. Methylphenidate is a racemic mixture composed of the d- and l-enantiomers. The d-enantiomer is more pharmacologically active than the l-enantiomer.

Edwin Williamson, Nila A Sathe,  Jeffrey C Andrews, Shanthi Krishnaswami, Melissa L McPheeters, Christopher Fonnesbeck, Kevin Sanders, Amy Weitlauf, Zachary Warren.

Medical Therapies for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder—An Update.

Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, No. 189.

Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2017 May.Report No.: 17-EHC009-EF