There is no medicine that will ’cure’ autism but there is medication available to treat many of the symptoms. This includes a group of drugs known as ’Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors’ or ’SSRI’s for short.

These are more commonly prescribed for depression but have found to be beneficial in cases of autism. They alter the levels of serotonin within the brain which then changes mood and behaviour.

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is a ’neurotransmitter’ or chemical within the brain which is responsible for changes in mood, motivation and behaviour.

The technical name for serotonin is ’5-hydroxytrytamine’.

Serotonin controls our levels of aggression, sleep and overall sense of well being. Any changes in serotonin levels, e.g. raised levels, will directly affect mood and consequently, social behaviour.

There is research evidence which shows that changes in serotonin levels are a contributing factor to autism. In fact, nearly 50% of children diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder have higher than normal serotonin levels.

How do SSRI’s work?

These drugs work by changing serotonin levels –increasing or suppressing them –which then alters their affect on the brain. This impacts upon mood and behaviour in a dramatic way, for example, reducing emotional outbursts or periods of depression.

The main objective with SSRI’s is to reduce the obsessive and often rigid behaviour exhibited by an autistic child. This includes waving their hands or repeatedly licking an object.

They also:

  • Improve eye contact between an autistic child and their parents.
  • Improve their interest and responsiveness
  • Improve their focus and concentration and decrease their self-absorption.
  • Reduce the number of temper tantrums and other forms of challenging behaviour.

They enable the autistic child to concentrate of the task in hand and more easily when in the company of others.

Examples of SSRI’s

The most commonly known SSRI is Prozac but there are others which include Seroxat, Anafranil, Lustral and Flaverin.

Prozac helps to improve behavioural and cognitive skills along with the ability to understand and use language.

Seroxat has a calming influence and reduces temper tantrums, mood swings and other emotional outbursts. It also reduces self-preoccupation.

Anafranil reduces repetitive behaviour, anger and hyperactivity.

Lustral also reduces frustration and anger. It also reduces repetitive actions.

Flaverin is useful at minimising inappropriate language and behaviour. It also helps to dampen down aggression and other forms of challenging behaviour.

Serotonin syndrome

This is the name given to a condition where someone has excessively high levels of serotonin. This can be caused by taking SSRI’s which sometimes causes serotonin levels to rise but too sharply. This results in the following symptoms:

  • Sweating
  • Tremors/shivering
  • Confusion
  • Agitated behaviour
  • Muscle cramps/twitching
  • Nausea
  • Poor co-ordination

These are symptomatic of a mild form of this syndrome but there is a severe version which causes seizures, fever and an irregular heartbeat. If your child exhibits these symptoms then seek urgent medical advice.

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