Autism therapies: Study shows what works, what doesn't

mom, son, sad, no talking, autism

(CBS) Parents of kids with autism may be disappointed to learn that there are a couple of big problems with the drugs and behavioral therapies approaches often used to treat the developmental disorder.

Many simply don't work, and those that do can cause major side effects, according to new research.

Take secretin, a hormone commonly used to treat autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It's ineffective, according to a written statement released in conjunction with a study published online in the journal Pediatrics. None of the drugs used for ASD improve kids' communication skills or their ability to socialize appropriately. And while the drugs risperidone and aripiprazole do seem to reduce emotional distress, aggression, hyperactivity, and self-injury in autistic kids, the antipsychotic drugs can make kids fat and drowsy, according to the statement.

Up to 70 percent of children with ASD are treated with medication, Dr. Bryan King, director of Seattle Children's Autism Center, told Reuters.

"The real take-home message for the striking disparity between the treatments that we use and the number of children that are receiving them, and the strength of the evidence that we have in support of these practices," said King, who was not involved in the study.

What about behavioral therapy? The study indicates that it can improve social communication and language use, the statement said. But it can take up more than 30 hours a week, it isn't available everywhere, and insurance doesn't always cover it, Geraldin Dawson, chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, told USA Today.

About three to six children out of every 1,000 develop ASD. The disorder, which is four times more common among boys than girls, is characterized by impaired social interaction - failing to make eye contact or to use language or respond appropriately to others. The cause of the disorder is poorly understood, though heredity is believed to play a role.

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