Evidence-Based Reviews

Caring for patients with autism spectrum disorder

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Pharmacotherapy for psychiatric symptoms can maximize the benefits of behavioral therapies.



Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term used to describe lifelong neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impairment in social interactions and communication coupled with restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors or interests that appear to share a common developmental course.1 In this article, we examine psychiatric care of patients with ASD and the most common symptom clusters treated with pharmacotherapy: irritability, anxiety, and hyperactivity/inattention.

First step: Keep the diagnosis in mind

Prior to 2013, ASD was comprised of 3 separate disorders distinguished by language delay and overall severity: autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified.2 With the release of DSM-5 in 2013, these disorders were essentially collapsed into a single ASD.3 ASD prevalence is estimated to be 1 in 59 children,4 which represents a 20- to 30-fold increase since the 1960s.

In order to provide adequate psychiatric care for individuals with ASD, the first step is to remember the diagnosis; keep it in mind. This may be particularly important for clinicians who primarily care for adults, because such clinicians often receive limited training in disorders first manifesting in childhood and may not consider ASD in patients who have not been previously diagnosed. However, ASD diagnostic criteria have become broader, and public knowledge of the diagnosis has grown. DSM-5 acknowledges that although symptoms begin in early childhood, they may become more recognizable later in life with increasing social demand. The result is that many adults are likely undiagnosed. The estimated prevalence of ASD in adult psychiatric settings range from 1.5% to 4%.5-7 These patients have different treatment needs and unfortunately are often misdiagnosed with other psychiatric conditions.

A recent study in a state psychiatric facility found that 10% of patients in this setting met criteria for ASD.8 Almost all of those patients had been misdiagnosed with some form of schizophrenia, including one patient who had been previously diagnosed with autism by the father of autism himself, Leo Kanner, MD. Through the years, this patient’s autism diagnosis had fallen away, and at the time of the study, the patient carried a diagnosis of undifferentiated schizophrenia and was prescribed 8 psychotropic medications. The patient had repeatedly denied auditory or visual hallucinations; however, his stereotypies and odd behaviors were taken as evidence that he was responding to internal stimuli. This case highlights the importance of keeping the ASD diagnosis in mind when evaluating and treating patients.

Addressing 3 key symptom clusters

Even for patients with an established ASD diagnosis, comprehensive treatment is complex. It typically involves a multimodal approach that includes speech therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavioral analysis (ABA), and vocational training and support as well as management of associated medical conditions. Because medical comorbidities may play an important role in exacerbation of severe behaviors in ASD, often leading to acute behavioral regression and psychiatric admission, it is essential that they not be overlooked during evaluations.9,10

There are no effective pharmacologic treatments for the core social deficits seen in ASD. Novel pharmacotherapies to improve social impairment are in the early stages of research,11,12 but currently social impairment is best addressed through behavioral therapy and social skills training. Our role as psychiatrists is most often to treat co-occurring psychiatric symptoms so that individuals with ASD can fully participate in behavioral and school-based treatments that lead to improved social skills, activities of daily living, and quality of life. Three of the most common of these symptoms are irritability, anxiety, and hyperactivity/inattention.


Irritability, marked by aggression, self-injury, and severe tantrums, causes serious distress for both patients and families, and this behavior cluster is the most frequently reported comorbid symptom in ASD.13-15 Nonpharmacologic treatment of irritability often involves ABA-based therapy and communication training.

Continued to: ABA includes an initial functional behavior assessment...


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