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Antidepressant drugs may help adults who have an autism spectrum disorder

By Linda Searing,

THE QUESTION Might a type of antidepressant known as an SSRI help relieve the repetitive behavior that’s common among people with autism?

THIS STUDY involved 37 adults (average age, 34) who had an autism spectrum disorder that was at least moderate in severity and who were taking no medications. They were randomly assigned to take Prozac (fluoxetine) or a placebo daily for three months. The average dose was about 65 milligrams. Based on standardized scales, repetitive actions — such as compulsively arranging things, rereading or rewriting, doing something until it was “just right,” rigidly following routines and nail-biting — declined substantially in 50 percent of those taking Prozac, compared with 8 percent of the others. Overall improvement in autism symptoms, allowing better day-to-day functioning and including social relationships and communication, was reported in 35 percent of the Prozac group but in none of those in the placebo group. Reported side effects among those taking Prozac were generally mild and included insomnia, dry mouth and headaches.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Adults with an autism spectrum disorder. Although attention often focuses on the childhood years, when diagnosis usually occurs and treatment begins, autism is a lifelong condition. It’s described as a spectrum disorder because symptoms vary greatly from person to person and range in intensity from mild to severe.

CAVEATS The study included a small number of participants. Long-term safety and effectiveness of the drug was not tested, nor were other SSRIs.

FIND THIS STUDY Dec. 2 online issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry (ajp.psychiatryonline.org).

LEARN MORE ABOUT autism in adults at www.nimh.nih.gov (search for “adult autism”) and www.autism-society.org (click on “Living with Autism,” then “Autism through the Lifespan”).

— Linda Searing

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.

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