In 2009, the FDA approved Abilify (aripiprazole) for treating irritability in autistic children and youth up to age 17. In a press release issued at the time, manufacturer Bristol-Meyers Squibb stated that Abilify – normally used to treat bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression – should be used in conjunction with other pediatric treatments that include psychological counseling, educational programs and socialization. The study done in this area demonstrated that Abilify was effective in reducing temper tantrums, moodiness and aggressive behaviors as well as compulsive motions and self-inflicted injuries.

On the other hand, Abilify has been linked to numerous side effects that include compulsive behaviors such as gambling and shopping, weight gain and a condition known as tardive dyskinesia (uncontrollable muscle spasms and tics). Given the risk of side effects, is treating an autistic child with Abilify a wise decision?

It should be noted that the above-referenced study was limited. Although children who participated in the clinical trials showed fewer of the behaviors associated with autism (such as hyperactivity and irritability), some subjects wound up suffering from a number of adverse effects that included sleepiness and fatigue, vomiting and tremors. Furthermore, children medicated with Abilify put on an average of 2.5 pounds compared to those who took a placebo. The authors acknowledged that “longer studies of aripiprazole in individuals with ASD would be useful to gain information on long-term safety and efficacy.”

The side effects of aripiprazole when used to treat autism are similar to those experienced with risperidone, which is the only other drug approved for the treatment of autistic children. Most worrisome is weigh gain, resulting from increased appetite – which poses a problem for parents who have used food as a reward for desired behaviors. There is also the risk that Abilify can cause the same kinds of involuntary muscle movements that it was intended to prevent.

Physicians that prescribe Abilify for their autistic patients recommend these patients be given the lowest possible dose, and adjust that dosage if and as needed. It is important to understand that once on Abilify, a patient may experience serious withdrawal symptoms if the medication is discontinued. These symptoms can include nausea, lightheadedness, rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) and excessive sweating (diaphoresis).

Parents should also be aware that while Abilify may treat some of the symptoms of autism, it is by no means a cure. It may not even be the best treatment. Autism is a complex condition with many variables, while psychotropic prescription medications such as Abilify pose many risks. Parents considering treating an autistic child with Abilify should consider these risks and weigh them against possible benefits.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.