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Brian Thompson, Ph.D.
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Autism Treatment: Recent Review Suggests SSRI's are Not Effective

Brian Thompson, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 29th 2010

The Cochran Collaboration, a prestigious international nonprofit organization dedicated to making healthcare research available to consumers, posted a review this year on the use of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) for the treatment of autism. SSRIs are a common class of antidepressants that include Prozac and Celexa. The review concluded there was no evidence that children with autism spectrum disorders benefit from SSRIs, and only limited evidence for their usefulness in adults with autism. Studies found that compared to placebos, SSRI's did not reduce repetitive behaviors associated with autism.

prescription bottleAutism is a developmental disorder that involves significant problems in social interaction, communication skills, and behavior, although there's a wide variability in people with autism. In the past few decades, there has been an increase in diagnosis of autism. Reasons for this increase appear to be related to changes in how it is diagnosed, and that professionals are better trained in detecting it. What this means is that it is less likely there is an "autism epidemic"-as is sometimes reported in the popular press-than that professionals are better at diagnosing it. There's no compelling scientific evidence that autism is caused by childhood vaccinations, for example, as has been claimed. (For more on autism, check out this MHN post.)

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of effective treatments for autism. Within this vacuum, a number of unsupported fringe therapies have claimed to be effective in treating autism. These include special diets, Facilitated Communication, and even what's called "Dolphin-Assisted Therapy" (which is even weirder than it sounds). Unfortunately, there's no compelling research supporting these treatments.

The most effective treatment for autism with the strongest research base remains Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). (Check out this MHN article on ABA.) ABA is a very precise treatment that involves gradually teaching and strengthening particular behaviors over time. It doesn't sound nearly exciting as a treatment that involves dolphins-but it works. There is a strong research literature supporting the use of ABA in treating autism, and it has continued to grow more sophisticated over time. ABA is the only treatment for autism at this time that is supported by good science.


Brian Thompson, Ph.D.

Brian Thompson, PhD, is a licensed psychologist at Portland Psychotherapy Clinic, Research, and Training Center in Portland, Oregon. In his therapy practice, he works with a variety of conditions ó particularly anxiety ó and specializes in the treatment of trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder. Brian received a terminal Masterís degree in counseling from Naropa University before completing his doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Montana. He has completed specialty training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and he offers ACT consultation and training to other therapists. Brian is a published researcher in several peer-reviewed scientific journals. He contributes to other mental health blogs, including The Art and Science of Living Well, and one for mental health professionals called Science-Based Psychotherapy.

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