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Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

Other common names: fluoxetine and citalopram
At a glance: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
Type of therapy
Medical
The claim
Reduces aggression, anxiety, depression, self-injury and repetitive behaviour
Suitable for
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Research rating
Find out more about this rating system in our FAQs.
Not enough research available.
Warnings
Warning   This medication can have some side effects including hyperactive or impulsive behaviour, concentration problems and sleeping difficulties. There’s also a possible link to suicidal thoughts.
Time
Estimate of the total time for family in hours per week and duration
0-10
Little time is needed to take the medication, but treatment might be ongoing.
Cost
Estimate of cost to family per session/item or week
$0-30
The cost of this therapy varies depending on the type of medication used (that is, the specific brand of drug), the drug dose or strength, and how often it’s taken.

What are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)?

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are antidepressant medications traditionally used to treat depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Some SSRIs prescribed for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are fluoxetine (Prozac) and citalopram.

Who are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for?

SSRIs are used for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who show high levels of anxiety, depression, repetitive behaviour, or aggressive or hyperactive behaviour.

What are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used for?

SSRIs are used to treat depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and some characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), like repetitive or aggressive behaviour.

Where do selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) come from?

The first SSRI, fluoxetine (Prozac), was launched in 1987. SSRIs rapidly became the most widely used treatment for depression. They were also found to be helpful in treating OCD and anxiety.

Since the 1980s, researchers have tested SSRIs for use with people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who also have anxiety and OCD.

What is the idea behind selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter – that is, a chemical messenger that carries messages to and from the brain. It regulates sleep, mood and emotions. Lack of serotonin has been linked to a range of conditions including anxiety and OCD.

SSRIs can be used to help regulate serotonin. Changing the balance of serotonin seems to help brain cells send and receive chemical messages.

People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have some similar characteristics to people with OCD, including repetitive behaviour, special interests and a preference for routines. SSRIs are effective for treating OCD, so researchers believe that they might also improve similar characteristics in people with ASD.

What does SSRI therapy involve?

This therapy involves taking oral medication on a daily basis. The specific medication and dosage depends on each child’s symptoms. Children are started on the lowest possible dose.

A medical practitioner, like a GP or psychiatrist, should monitor a child taking SSRIs. The child will need regular appointments with this practitioner, especially during the first four weeks.

Cost considerations

The cost of this therapy varies depending on the brand of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) being used, whether it’s covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), its dose or strength  and whether you have a concession card – for example, a Health Care Card.

Do selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work?

Research on the effectiveness of serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) as a treatment for the core characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) shows mixed results. Some studies have shown positive effects from this therapy, but others have found that SSRIs aren’t effective for ASD. Emerging evidence suggests SSRIs aren’t effective for children and can cause harm, but could be effective in adults.

More high-quality studies are needed.

Who practises this method?

Your GP, paediatrician or child psychiatrist can prescribe serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and give you information about the potential benefits and risks of using them.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

If your child is taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), you need to ensure your child takes the medication. You also need to monitor the effects, including any rare but serious side effects.

Where can you find a practitioner?

It’s best to speak to your GP, a paediatrician or a child psychiatrist about this therapy.

You can find a child psychiatrist by going to Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists – Find a psychiatrist.

You could also talk with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.

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Last updated or reviewed
01-08-2017

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