Antidepressants can harm autistic children

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Antidepressants commonly prescribed to children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) may do more harm than good, according to a new study by the Cochrane Institute.

While there is some evidence to suggest benefits for adults diagnosed with autism, the researchers found no evidence of any benefits associated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for children. Moreover, children may suffer serious adverse effects as a result of taking the drugs.

SSRIs are among the most commonly prescribed medications for autism because they act on serotonin, the chemical found in the body that is responsible for some of the psychological processes affected by the condition. However, no drug authority has specifically approved SSRIs for this purpose and few antidepressants are approved in the UK for use with children for any condition.

The study, which included seven trials and 271 patients, examined the drugs fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, fenfluramine and citalopram. The five trials involving children found no benefit and some evidence of serious harm, including one child who suffered a prolonged seizure after taking citalopram.

“We can’t recommend SSRIs as treatments for children, or adults, with autism at this time. However, decisions about the use of SSRIs for co-occurring obsessive-compulsive disorder, aggression, anxiety or depression in individuals with autism should be made on a case by case basis,” said the study’s lead author Katrina Williams of the University of New South Wales & Sydney Children’s Hospital in Australia.

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