What are beta-blockers?
Beta-blockers are drugs traditionally prescribed to people with heart conditions. Beta-blockers slow down the heart and lower blood pressure. Beta-blockers are sometimes prescribed to autistic people to reduce feelings of anxiety.
Some commonly prescribed beta-blockers for autistic people are Tenormin (atenolol) and Inderal (propranolol).
Who are beta-blockers for?
Beta-blockers are sometimes used for autistic people who show high levels of aggression and anxiety. If people have asthma as well as autism, they should use beta-blockers cautiously because these drugs can narrow the airways.
What are beta-blockers used for?
Beta-blockers are used to treat behaviour like hyperactivity, impulsivity, aggression, anxiety, self-harm and obsessive-compulsive behaviour.
Where do beta-blockers come from?
Beta-blockers were first trialled with autistic people in 1987. Researchers found that they reduced aggression and improved social skills in a small group of adult participants.
What is the idea behind using beta-blockers?
Researchers believe that autistic people might experience high levels of anxiety or stress brought on by changes in their environment. This constant state of inner tension might lead to more extreme behaviour, including aggression.
Beta-blockers decrease the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which is a natural reaction to stress, anxiety or frustration. The idea is that by reducing the fight or flight response, these drugs decrease the feelings of tension that might lead to aggressive behaviour.
Like most medical interventions, beta-blockers do not (and are not supposed to) improve behavioural and social difficulties of autistic people. Instead, they’re meant to reduce other symptoms associated with autism.
What does the use of beta-blockers involve?
This therapy involves taking oral medication on a daily basis. The specific medication and dosage depends on each child’s symptoms.
A specialist medical practitioner like a psychiatrist should monitor the person taking the medication. The person needs to have regular appointments with the specialist.
The cost of the medication varies depending on the medication brand and dosage. It also depends on whether you hold a concession card and whether the medication is subsidised by the Australian Government through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
Do beta-blockers work?
Some research has shown positive effects, but more research is needed.
Who practises this method?
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is taking beta-blockers, you need to ensure that your child takes the medication as required. You also need to monitor the effects of the medication.
Where can you find a practitioner?
Your GP, paediatrician or a child psychiatrist can prescribe this medication and give you information about its potential benefits and risks.
There are many therapies for autism. They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for autistic children takes you through the main therapies, so you can better understand your child’s options.