The pediatric psychopharmacology of autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review - Part I: The past and the present

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2021 Apr 12;110326. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2021.110326. Online ahead of print.


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a severe and lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder, with high social costs and a dramatic burden on the quality of life of patients and family members. Despite its high prevalence, reaching 1/54 children and 1/45 adults in the United States, no pharmacological treatment is still directed to core symptoms of ASD, encompassing social and communication deficits, repetitive behaviors, restricted interests, and abnormal sensory processing. The purpose of this review is to provide an overview of the state-of-the-art of psychopharmacological therapy available today for ASD in children and adolescents, in order to foster best practices and to organize new strategies for future research. To date, atypical antipsychotics such as risperidone and aripiprazole represent the first line of intervention for hyperactivity, impulsivity, agitation, temper outbursts or aggression towards self or others. Tricyclic antidepressants are less prescribed because uncertain efficacy and important side effects. SSRIs, especially fluoxetine and sertraline, may be effective in treating repetitive behaviors (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms) and irritability/agitation, while mirtazapine is more helpful with sleep problems. Low doses of buspirone have shown some efficacy on restrictive and repetitive behaviors in combination with behavioral interventions. Stimulants, and to a lesser extent atomoxetine, are effective in reducing hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity also in comorbid ASD-ADHD, although with somewhat lower efficacy and greater incidence of side effects compared to idiopathic ADHD. Clonidine and guanfacine display some efficacy on hyperactivity and stereotypic behaviors. For several other drugs, case reports and open-label studies suggest possible efficacy, but no randomized controlled trial has yet been performed. Research in the pediatric psychopharmacology of ASD is still faced with at least two major hurdles: (a) Great interindividual variability in clinical response and side effect sensitivity is observed in the ASD population. This low level of predictability would benefit from symptom-specific treatment algorithms and from biomarkers to support drug choice; (b) To this date, no psychoactive drug appears to directly ameliorate core autism symptoms, although some indirect improvement has been reported with several drugs, once the comorbid target symptom is abated.

Keywords: Antidepressants; Antiepileptics; Antipsychotics; Autism; Drug development; Neuropsychopharmacology; Pharmacotherapy; Stimulants.

Publication types

  • Review