Questioning Treatment of Repetition in Autism

Autism is often associated with repetitive behaviors and a new study questions an available treatment

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Repetitive behaviors, like counting or hand motions, can be troublesome for children with autism. Antidepressants have been reported to help with this symptom, but new research questions the effectiveness.

Antidepressant medications have received some attention as a good way to lower repetitive behaviors in children with autism.

A new look at the available information calls into question how effective these medications really are at treating repetitive behaviors in children with autism.

"Discuss any changes in your child’s behavior with their pediatrician"

When doctors are trying to decide on treatments for children with autism, they look to published reports of clinical trials. These reports show doctors how a drug or therapy worked for children with autism and give some insights about possible side effects to watch for.

Recently, researchers, led by Melissa Carrasco, PhD, at the University of Michigan wanted to explore how effective antidepressant medications are for the treatment of repetitive behaviors in children with autism. To do this, they looked at data from six clinical trials.

When looking at the data from all the trials, they found a weak effect.  Repetitive behaviors in children with autism were lower when children took antidepressant medications for this purpose, but the reduction in behaviors was fairly small.

What Carrasco and her colleagues also discovered was that they had a difficult time getting access to the clinical trial data they need for their analysis.

They found five published reports of clinical trials, and five trials logged at, the National Institutes of Health website designed to track clinical trials and their outcomes.

Carrasco’s group was only able to obtain data from one of the registered clinical trials, so they put it together with the five published reports. Their analysis showed that there seemed to be some bias in the available data towards good results. 

When they tried to account for the bias, antidepressants did not appear to lower repetitive behaviors in children with autism.

The true efficacy of antidepressants for the treatment of repetitive behaviors in autism remains unclear.

The study authors note in their conclusions, “Identifying effective treatments for these patients will be difficult if partial and selective publication of clinical trials persists, an issue that experts indicate is widespread across all fields of medicine.”

Scott Denne, MD, of the Indiana University School of Medicine, published a commentary addressing this issue. He stated, “This lack of timely and complete disclosure of trial findings results in physicians being unable to make rational informed decisions about the efficacy and risks of SRI treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders.”

Both Carrasco’s study and Dr. Denne’s commentary appeared in the May issue of Pediatrics. No financial conflicts were disclosed by the authors.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 15, 2012
Last Updated:
July 30, 2012