Treatment of Aggression in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Review

Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2021 Jan-Feb;29(1):35-80. doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000282.


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by markedly impaired social interaction, impaired communication, and restricted/repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. In addition to challenges caused by core symptoms, maladaptive behaviors such as aggression can be associated with ASD and can further disrupt functioning and quality of life. For adults with ASD, these behaviors can portend adverse outcomes (e.g., harm to others or to the individual with ASD, hindering of employment opportunities, criminal justice system involvement). This article reviews the scientific literature to provide an update on evidence-based interventions for aggression in adults with ASD.

Method: A search of the electronic databases CINAHL, EMBASE, and PsycINFO was conducted using relevant search terms. After reviewing titles, abstracts, full-length articles, and reference lists, 70 articles were identified and reviewed.

Results: The strongest (controlled trial) evidence suggests beneficial effects of risperidone, propranolol, fluvoxamine, vigorous aerobic exercise, and dextromethorphan/quinidine for treating aggression in adults with ASD, with lower levels of evidence supporting behavioral interventions, multisensory environments, yokukansan, and other treatments.

Conclusions: Additional randomized, controlled trials using consistent methodology that adequately addresses sources of bias are needed to determine which treatments are reliably effective in addressing aggression in adults with ASD. In the meantime, considering efficacy and adverse effect/long-term risk profiles, a practical approach could start with functional assessment-informed behavioral interventions along with encouragement of regular, vigorous aerobic exercise to target aggression in adults with ASD, with pharmacotherapy employed if these interventions are unavailable or inadequate based on symptom acuity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aggression
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / drug therapy
  • Behavior Therapy
  • Communication
  • Humans
  • Quality of Life