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A number of popular antidepressant medications have been linked to an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) in babies born to mothers who took the drugs during pregnancy. Autism is a complex developmental disability that causes lifelong problems with social interaction and communication. Antidepressants associated with autism include Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, Symbyax, Wellbutrin, Celexa and Effexor.

Which drugs have been associated with autism?

Recent studies suggest that babies born to mothers who take antidepressant medications during their first trimester of pregnancy are three times more likely to give birth to babies with autism compared to children from the general population whose mothers took no such drugs during pregnancy. This new research has added to the growing controversy over the use of antidepressants in women of childbearing age. The following antidepressants have been increasingly linked to autism spectrum disorders:

  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Celexa (citalopram)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Lexapro (escitalopram)
  • Symbyax (fluoxetine and olanzapine)
  • Wellbutrin (bupropion)
  • Effexor (venlafaxine)

Autism Overview

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of complex neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by severe social impairments, communication difficulties, and repetitive patterns of behavior. The most severe form of ASD is known as autistic disorder, while other conditions along the spectrum include Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Although ASD can be manifested in a variety of different forms, it occurs in all socioeconomic and ethnic strata, and affects every age group. It has been estimated that approximately six out of every 1,000 babies born in the United States will have an ASD. For reasons still unclear, males are nearly four times more likely to have an ASD than females.

Autism spectrum disorders typically begin before the age of three and last throughout the person’s life, although some symptoms may improve over time. Some babies born with an ASD may exhibit telltale signs within the first few months of life, while others may not show symptoms until two years of age or even later. Some children with autism may seem to develop normally until around 18 to 24 months, and then stop gaining skills or lose skills they once had. Research indicates that approximately 30-50% of parents with children with an ASD notice a problem before their child’s first birthday, and nearly 90% recognize symptoms by the time their child turned two.

Signs & Symptoms of Autism

The symptoms of autism vary greatly from case to case, but all affected individuals will have problems with:
Social Interactions & Relationships
Signs and symptoms may include:

  • significant problems developing nonverbal communication skills
  • eye-to-eye gazing
  • abnormal facial expressions / body posture
  • failure to establish friendships with children the same age
  • lack of interest in sharing enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people
  • lack of empathy

Verbal & Nonverbal Communication
Symptoms may include:

  • delay in, or lack of, learning to talk
  • problems taking steps to start a conversation
  • stereotyped and repetitive use of language (echolalia)
  • difficulty understanding their listener’s perspective

Limited Interest in Activities or Play
Symptoms may include:

  • an unusual focus on pieces of toys (such as the wheels of a car), rather than playing with the whole toy
  • preoccupation with certain topics (i.e. video games, trading cards, or license plates)
  • a need for sameness and routines
  • stereotyped behaviors (i.e. body rocking and hand flapping)

Autism Studies

A recent study that involved nearly 1,800 children pulled from the Kaiser Permanente patient database found a two-fold increased risk of children being born with an ASD if they were exposed to antidepressant medications in the womb. This risk was increased four-fold when the exposure occurred during the first trimester of pregnancy (a time when many women may still be unaware they are pregnant).

In the late 1990’s, it was discovered that approximately two percent of autism cases could be attributed to the maternal use of antidepressants during pregnancy. Current statistics are estimated to be much higher, considering the fact that it is now extremely common for expecting mothers to be prescribed SSRIs than it was in previous decades.

While the Kaiser study’s results were ultimately inconclusive, they were the first to identify the link between antidepressants and autism spectrum disorders. It is important to note that should additional studies follow suit, there could soon be more scientific evidence to back up this link.

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