July 11, 2020

drugThis is part 2 of our review of medications that are not yet approved for treating the symptoms of autism, but that are showing promise in studies and clinical trials. Part 1 can be read here.


Memantine (Namenda) is a medication currently used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is a glutamate receptor antagonist that slows the effects of dementia. It is currently being tested on patients with autism, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology showed that memantine improved the symptoms of autism in children when combined with the antipsychotic drug rispiridone. A second study presented at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed negative results, though the drug was not combined with any other medications for this study.

Dr. Randall Kavalier, a child psychiatrist in West Des Moine, Iowa, prescribes Namenda (memantine) to his young patients with autism and brain injuries. He says that he has seen quick, impressive results and adds

“They light up, I mean, they turn on. . . it’s like patients start talking. . . suddenly.”

Greg and Stacy Brakefield from New Germany, MN, have two children, Mackenzie, who suffers from a brain injury, and Josh, who has autism.

“It’s a miracle drug,” says Stacy. “We were told she wouldn’t walk, she wouldn’t see. She wouldn’t be a very normally functioning kid. . . I wouldn’t say cure. I’d say it’s a thing to help the journey be easier.”


Clozapine (Leponex) is an atypical antipsychotic that is usually prescribed for individuals with treatment-resistant schizophrenia. It has been occasionally prescribed for individuals with autism over to the age of 16 who suffer from hyperactivity, fidgeting, and severe aggression. It is believed to work by blocking neurotransmission due to due to dopamine and serotonin in the brain’s limbic system, which is associated with emotions and motivation.

Clozapine has a long list of potentially deadly side-effects, which is why is it not offered to children. Serious side effects include bowel infarction, seizures, myocarditis, and diabetes, along with constipation, bed-wetting, drooling, and tremors.

Here is what one family from Switzerland told Autism Daily Newscast about their experiences,

“Our son was prescribed Leponex over 5 years ago by his psychiatrist at the age of 13. We were told then that it was illegal to prescribe in most countries under age 16 and that he would require constant monitoring for spiking temperatures. He had to have his blood tested every week for four months and then every month for the rest of the time he took it.

“It has been a game changer for him. He hates and I mean hates needles but he knows the difference it makes him feel. The major side effect is severe drowsiness, so our son takes the bulk of his medication before going to bed. He was never aggressive but the anxiety is something he can better manage and now he seems happier than before. While he still has some ticks and OC behaviours, they are milder.

“This is a very dangerous drug but with close supervision and a proper psychiatrist with experience, it is worth exploring. Leponex was certainly the right choice for our son.”

Stem Cell Therapy

Researchers are exploring the possibility of using stem cells from umbilical cord tissue to treat the symptoms of autism. The rationale is that mesenchymal stem cells can regulate the immune system and may help reduce inflammatory conditions in the gut. Sutter Neuroscience Institute in Sacramento, California, and Cord Blood Registry are conducting a clinical trial to test the effectiveness of cord blood cells in the treatment of autism.

For more information about the study, visit their website at http://www.cordblood.com/stem-cell-research/cord-blood-research/autism.

These are just a few of the medications that are currently being tested for the treatment of autism. It remains to be seen whether any will emerge as the new “miracle-drug,” but for the many families raising children with the disorder, hope remains.

Our next article will discuss what happens when a drug stop working, and how to handle withdrawal symptoms.


About the author 

Laurel Joss

Laurel Joss is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She worked as an RDI® Program Certified Consultant and has published articles in Autism Spectrum Quarterly and on her blog www.remediatingautism.blogspot.com. She is a mother to two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum.


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