Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Drug fails to subdue repetitive behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders

In Brief

Drug fails to subdue repetitive behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders

People with autism spectrum disorders often engage in repetitive behaviors, such as flapping their hands or arms, turning in circles, or repeating words or sounds. Although studies had suggested that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) might help to reduce repetitive behaviors in adults with autism spectrum disorders, a randomized controlled study has found no such benefit for children taking one drug in this category — citalopram (Celexa).

Researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, randomly assigned 149 children, ages 5 to 17, to citalopram or placebo. The children entered the study with moderate levels of repetitive behavior.

At the end of the 12-week study, about one in three children in both groups had improved, as measured by the Clinical Global Impressions, Improvement subscale — a standard tool that assesses repetitive behaviors. But the children assigned to citalopram were significantly more likely to experience hyperactivity, insomnia, diarrhea, decreased concentration, and other adverse side effects during treatment.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »