Treating Irritability in Young People with Autism: Can Abilify Help?

Autism is the general term for a spectrum of developmental disorders that begin in early childhood. People with this disorder may have difficulty socializing, understanding emotional cues, or functioning in daily life. People with autism are not, as was once thought, intellectually impaired. In fact, many children and adults with autistic disorder show remarkably high intelligence in a variety of areas. Despite years of research, scientists are still not able to explain what causes autism, much less develop preventative measures or cures. The best approaches we have for helping those with autism are therapy and behavioral counseling. The goal of such therapy is to keep behavioral symptoms under control and improve the overall quality of life.

Children with autism show different signs and symptoms. Some are completely withdrawn, seemingly trapped in their own consciousness. Others are very outgoing but oblivious to the social or emotional needs of those around them. Among all behavioral symptoms, aggression towards oneself and others is the most troubling. In two controlled trials, the antipsychotic medication Abilify (aripiprazole) was shown to significantly reduce aggressive outbursts and mood variability in children aged 6 to 17 years.

In most instances, Abilify represents a good choice for modifying aggressive behavior. Adverse side effects reported from the trials included sedation, fatigue, and vomiting. These side effects typically occurred in the first week or two of taking the medication and faded with time. About 10% of patients in the trials discontinued Abilify because of adverse effects, compared with 7% for placebo. In the long term, the most commonly observed side effect was weight gain, which also plateaued after several weeks. Physical activity and a well-managed diet may offset some of this weight gain. In a 52-week trial, the effectiveness of Abilify at reducing irritability appeared unchanged. This finding is encouraging, as the benefits of some psychotropic drugs have been shown to diminish after prolonged use.

Stabilizing the emotional states of children with autism is an important goal for therapists and parents. When the child is calm and responsive, talk therapy and other interactive activities can be more meaningful and effective. Aggressive outbursts and irritability lead to a poor quality of life for the child with autism. Although a cure may still be a long way off, Abilify has proven that it can help improve quality of life for autistic children who exhibit anger and aggression toward themselves and others.

References
Curran, M. P. (2011). Aripiprazole in the treatment of irritability associated with autistic disorder in pediatric patients. Pediatric Drugs, 13 (3), 197-204.

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