Context: The number of people with autism spectrum disorders has dramatically increased over the past decade, and problem behaviours in autism are an increasing challenge to families, schools, physicians, and other health-care professionals. Pharmacological treatments can effectively target problem behaviours associated with autism. Starting point: Recently, L Namerow and colleagues (J Dev Behav Pediatr 2003; 24: 104-08) presented preliminary data in children and adolescents with autism treated with citalopram, which suggested that selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors are useful in the reduction of symptom domains such as repetitive behaviours and mood disorders. J McCracken and colleagues (N Engl J Med 2000; 347: 314-21) showed that the atypical antipsychotic risperidone reduced serious behavioural problems, such as tantrums, aggression, or self-injury in children with autism and in children with below-average intelligence quotients. These and other studies show how developments in study design, selection of patients, and outcome measures have allowed treatment trials in autism to progress beyond anecdotal reports and case observations, and show reduction in the severity of specific symptom domains within these disorders. Where next? In therapeutic intervention the risk of treatment toxicity must be balanced against the benefits of improved symptom severity. The newer methods enable informed decisions about which patients will benefit from which treatments. Other symptom domains within autism and effects on development need to be evaluated in adequately designed clinical trials. Future strategies include extending treatment to children as young as the preschool years.
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