The use of psychotropic medications in autistic individuals (21 years and younger) in Western Australia: A preliminary investigation

Roselyne Bulonza, Kim Watkins, Richard Parsons, Bruce Sunderland, Andrew Whitehouse, Rima Caccetta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

There is a significant variability in the prevalence of psychotropic medication use among young autistic persons worldwide and this is under-studied in Australia. Apart from risperidone, approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration to manage challenging behaviour, the appropriateness of other psychotropic medications prescribed to young autistic persons warrants scrutiny. This retrospective study aims to gain initial insight into the magnitude, types and indications of psychotropic medication use in autistic children and adolescents in Western Australia. We analysed de-identified data from 239 autistic children and adolescents (⩽21 years) who participated in the Western Australian Autism Biological Registry between 2011 and 2015 and who completed a questionnaire regarding medication use. One-quarter (n = 66, 28%) of young autistic people reported using a total of 137 medications. Most (n = 46, 70%) of those medicated were under 12 years of age; half (n = 33) were 6–12 years and a fifth (n = 13) were under 6 years. The most used medications were stimulants (n = 35, 53.0%), followed by antidepressants (n = 24, 36.4%), antiepileptics (n = 21, 31.8%), sedatives (n = 15, 22.7%) and antipsychotics (n = 14, 21.2%). These medications were mainly to manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, challenging behaviours, seizures, insomnia, undefined anxiety, depression and mood instability. While most autistic young people in the Western Australian Autism Biological Registry did not report using psychotropic medication, over a quarter were prescribed medications, primarily stimulants, to manage symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Various medications, including risperidone, were used to help manage challenging behaviours. Medication use should be studied more comprehensively in a larger cohort of autistic persons to confirm our current preliminary observations. Further, future studies should monitor the effectiveness and safety outcomes of such medications due to a limited understanding of their effectiveness in managing the atypical presentation of co-occurring disorders in young autistic persons. Lay abstract: Prescriptions and use of medications to treat mental health conditions in young autistic populations are inconsistent worldwide. This makes it hard to compare findings from international studies to the Australian autistic population, where there are limited relevant studies. Apart from risperidone, there are no other medications specified for direct use in autistic persons. This study aims to gain initial broad understanding of the use of medications, commonly prescribed for mental health conditions, specifically by autistics under the age of 21 years. We analysed data that were previously collected as part of the Western Australian Autism Biological Registry between 2011 and 2015 which amounted to 239 surveys completed on young persons with diagnosed autism. The questionnaires included information on co-occurring conditions, current or previous use of medications and reasons for use of the medications. Only one-quarter of the participants in this study reported using at least one mental health–related medication in their lifetime. The most reported medications were stimulants, antidepressants and antiepileptics. The reasons for using medication included managing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, challenging behaviours, seizures, sleep difficulties and symptoms of anxiety and depression. The number of individuals reporting medication use in this study was lower compared to other developed countries. Nevertheless, these medications should be monitored due to limited understanding of their use to manage co-occurring symptoms in young autistic persons. The findings highlight the importance of ongoing research to better understand mental health–related medications and inform best practice.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalAutism
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Feb 2024

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