Yale School of Nursing, Yale University's Graduate Nursing Programs

Yale School of Nursing

YSN Professor Finds Popular Autism Treatment Ineffective

July 1, 2009

Scahill.Yale University School of Nursing and Yale Child Study Center Professor Lawrence Scahill, MSN, PhD, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal today regarding his recent study, the first to show that children with autism do not benefit from the popularly prescribed antidepressant citalopram.

Scahill was part of a team of researchers at six academic centers who carried out a randomized controlled trial of 149 children ages 5 to 17. Citalopram is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, commonly prescribed to treat the repetitive behaviors or inflexible routines exhibited by children with autism.

Scahill said, "Despite the limited evidence supporting their use in children with autism, SSRIs are among the most frequently used medications in this population. This is due in part because of their perceived safety."

The study, published this week in the Archives of General Psychiatry, showed that the medication has the same outcome as the placebo, albeit with higher risk of side effects. Scahill said, "These results highlight the importance of placebo-controlled trials of medications commonly used for children with autism spectrum disorders to determine whether risks of medications outweigh benefits."

"Clinicians should be very careful about what they're targeting if they're using medications," said Scahill. Such medicines may be useful in these children to treat depression or anxiety, as they are in kids without autism, but "if you're targeting for repetitive behaviors, this medication does not appear to be effective."


"Lack of Efficacy of Citalopram in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders and High Levels of Repetitive Behavior. Citalopram Ineffective in Children With Autism."
Bryan H. King, MD; Eric Hollander, MD; Linmarie Sikich, MD; James T. McCracken, MD; Lawrence Scahill, MSN, PhD; Joel D. Bregman, MD; Craig L. Donnelly, MD; Evdokia Anagnostou, MD; Kimberly Dukes, PhD; Lisa Sullivan, PhD; Deborah Hirtz, MD; Ann Wagner, PhD; Louise Ritz, MBA; for the STAART Psychopharmacology Network. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2009;66(6):583-590. Link to abstract