A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), estimated at 1 in 110 children in a 2010 AFP article, may now have risen as high as 1 in 88. Previous AFP Community Blog posts have discussed potential explanations for the continuing increase in autism diagnoses, from the phenomenon of "diagnosis shift" to increased screening for ASDs at well-child visits, a controversial practice.
Although the etiology of ASDs remains unknown, there is evidence to support some treatments for affected children. In the May 1st issue of AFP, Dr. Corey Fogleman launched our "Implementing AHRQ Effective Health Care Reviews" series by summarizing key points from an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality-sponsored review of the effectiveness, benefits, and harms of therapies for core and associated symptoms of ASDs in children two to 12 years of age. The review found that the antipsychotic drugs risperidone and aripiprazole reduce challenging behaviors in children with ASDs, but are associated with significant adverse effects. Also, intensive one-on-one behavioral interventions appear to improve outcomes if begun before four years of age.
The AHRQ review's conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to assess the benefits and harms of other treatments for ASD-associated repetitive behaviors was supported by a recent study published in Pediatrics. Dr. Melisa Carrasco and colleagues analyzed published and unpublished data on selective serotonin receptor inhibitors (SSRIs) and initially found that SSRIs were modestly helpful in reducing repetitive behaviors in children with ASDs. However, after they adjusted for the effect of publication bias (i.e., the tendency for trials showing a benefit to be published while those showing no benefit are not), the improvement was no longer statistically significant. This study illustrated how difficult it is for even the highest-quality reviews to determine what constitutes effective health care for patients when important data are unavailable for review.