Prozac treatment for autism

In yesterday’s Guardian I read that

Thousands of children with autism in the UK could benefit from taking drugs such as Prozac, a US psychiatrist said yesterday.

 Professor Eric Hollander, from the Mount Sinai medical centre in New York, said a third of children diagnosed in the United States were on antidepressants and British children were being under-treated. Although the drugs are not licensed for autism, he said there was evidence they could reduce its symptoms, enabling some children to travel on public transport or go to mainstream schools.

It is argued that those drugs may help autistic children, who are obsessed with routine and get distressed if the unexpected happens.

Doctors in Britain have been warned not to prescribe antidepressants for children and adolescents following evidence that the pills may make them become suicidal. Research Autism, a branch of the National Autistic Society, warned that such drugs had worrying side-effects in autistic children. “We advise caution,” a spokesman said. “There has not been enough research to be able to give a clean bill of health to this treatment.”

Professor David Healy, whose research led to the warnings, said: “These drugs have been around for the last 20 years and if there really was any substantial benefit it would have been found a long, long time ago.”

Prozac was the first “lifestyle” drug. It can be a lifesaver for people with a major depressive disorder but is also used by  well people who would like to feel “better than well.” Widespread use by people with minor problems or no problems at all has fostered the illusion that prozac is a totally benevolent “happy pill.” However Prozac is one of a powerful class of psychotropic drugs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, (SSRIs) that can have dangerous side effects. Sarah Boseley, who wrote today’s piece, wrote another story about Prozac and similar SSRIs causing suicidal thoughts in some people.

Dr Healy says the results of the research should be a warning to GPs prescribing any SSRIs. “They may not all be equally the same,” he told the Guardian. “But the risk holds for the whole of the group. Generally the findings would indicate that women and children and those who are least ill may be most at risk.”

Prozac  now carries a “black box” warning.

Prozac is the only SSRI licensed for use with children in the UK following a ruling by the EMEA, and then only for children over the age of eight with moderate or severe depression who have failed to respond to psychological therapies alone. It should only be given in conjunction with continuing therapy and reconsidered if there is no clinical benefit after nine weeks. There are also questions arising from animal studies about the long term effects of Prozac on emotional behaviour, growth and sexual maturation which require further research and careful monitoring in children taking the drug. So it is unlikely that it will be widely prescribed for autistic children here.

But what about the one in three autistic children in the USA? How many of them are so severely depressed that they need to take SSRIs? How many of them are actually the victims of stress induced by unreal expectations and lack of understanding? Professor Hollander touches on this in an interview with Medscape.

There are some controversies about whether autism — for example, Asperger’s disorder — is just an alternative way of being and whether trying to get rid of target symptoms is not allowing certain patients with Asperger’s to fully express who they are.

My sense is that it’s pretty clear that if we can reduce certain target symptoms, then people will have significantly less distress and their overall level of functioning will improve.

I am not anti-drug or anti-psychiatry. For two years Prozac was my lifeline. But my depression did not begin with a chemical imbalance in my brain. That happened because of the cumulative effect of many external factors, not least of which was the stress involved in a long and unsuccessful battle with the authorities to obtain appropriate provision for my autistic son.

If someone is crying we do not give them a pill to dry their tears. We find out why they are crying and try to remove the source of their unhappiness. When it comes to autism we should begin by putting more effort into fixing the situation that these children and adults are often forced into and not automatically assume that they are the ones who need fixing and that we have the wherewithal to do it. If we can identify and alleviate sources of stress in the lives of young autistic children we may reduce the likelihood that they will need medication as they get older.