What are beta-blockers?
Beta-blockers are medicines used to treat heart conditions. Beta-blockers slow down the heart and lower blood pressure.
Who are beta-blockers for?
Beta-blockers are traditionally prescribed to people with heart conditions, but they’re 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 medicines can narrow the airways.
Some commonly prescribed beta-blockers for autistic people are atenolol and propranolol.
What are beta-blockers used for?
Beta-blockers can be 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 beta-blockers for autistic children?
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 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 medicines 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 autistic people’s behavioural and social difficulties. Instead, they’re meant to reduce other symptoms associated with autism.
What does the use of beta-blockers involve?
This therapy involves taking oral medicine on a daily basis. The specific medicine and dosage depends on each child’s symptoms.
A specialist medical practitioner like a psychiatrist should monitor the person taking the medicine. The person needs to have regular appointments with the specialist.
Do beta-blockers help autistic children?
Some research has shown positive effects, but more research is needed. Most research has involved autistic adults, so we don’t know whether beta-blockers help autistic children.
Who practises this method?
GPs, paediatricians and child psychiatrists can prescribe beta-blockers and give you information about the potential benefits and risks of using them.
Where can you find a practitioner?
Your GP can refer you to a paediatrician or a child psychiatrist.
You can find psychiatrists at Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists – Find a psychiatrist.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is taking beta-blockers, you need to ensure that your child takes the medicine as prescribed. You also need to monitor the effects of the medicine.
The cost of beta-blockers varies depending on the brand of medicine used and its dose or strength. It also depends on whether you hold a concession card and whether the medicine is subsidised by the Australian Government through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
Therapies and supports for autistic children range from behaviour therapies and developmental approaches to medicines and alternative therapies. When you understand the main types of therapies and supports for autistic children, it’ll be easier to work out the approach that will best suit your child.