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New study examines prescribing antipsychotic medication for children with autism

Swansea University

A new study by Swansea University has suggested that children with intellectual difficulty or autism are more likely to be given antipsychotic medication from a younger age than those without intellectual disability and have higher rates of hospitalisation for depression and for injury and also are at risk of other medical side effects.

Antipsychotic medication can be prescribed for young people with serious mental conditions such as schizophrenia. Some antipsychotic medications have also been used to reduce aggression in children with disruptive behaviour. They are also sometimes used for short term management of young people with explosive anger.

The study, led by Professor Sinead Brophy of the University's Medical School published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology , examined how antipsychotics are used in the NHS, by linking hospital, general practitioner and educational records for 3028 young people who had been prescribed an antipsychotic.

Study Findings

It was found that children with intellectual difficulty or autism were more likely to be given an antipsychotic. The study found:

  • 2.8% had been prescribed antipsychotics

  • 75% of these children had autism

  • This compares with 0.15% of those without intellectual disability.

Those with intellectual disability or autism were prescribed them younger and for a longer period than those without intellectual disability or autism. The research found that 50% of those with intellectual disability or autism had more than 12 prescriptions compared to 25% of those without intellectual disability or autism.

For young people who did not have intellectual disability or autism, there were lower rates of depression and injury after the antipsychotic, but for those with autism or intellectual disability there were higher rates of being hospitalized for depression and for injury. This is possibly because it has a sedative effect and makes children more injury prone and if the child did not have a manic or agitated type mental health condition beforehand, it can lead to depression.

Side Effects

Antipsychotics are known to be associated with increasing seizures in those with epilepsy. In some people certain antipsychotics can cause weight gain and potential diabetes and reducing swallowing and so leaving people open to respiratory infections. The study found evidence of higher rates of epilepsy, diabetes and respiratory infection requiring hospital admission in all young people, with and without autism or intellectual disability, who are on antipsychotics, compared to rates before being prescribed antipsychotics and compared to those not on antipsychotics.

Professor Brophy said: "Our research suggests that young people with intellectual difficulty or autism are more like to be prescribed antipsychotic medication than those with a psychotic diagnosis, and are prescribed this medication at a younger age and for a longer period of time.

"Treating behavioural problems in this way can lead to increased costs to the NHS in terms of higher epilepsy, respiratory infection, diabetes, depression and injury all requiring more visits to the GP and hospital. In addition, treating behavioural problems in this way can have long term health implications for the individual and for those who care for them."



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Swansea University Medical School is a UK top-ten Medical School offering a comprehensive portfolio of undergraduate and postgraduate courses spanning medicine, physician associate studies, health and life sciences to meet tomorrow's science and healthcare challenges. Since its beginnings as a newly established Medical School in 2004, it has seen exceptional development from the growth of its Graduate Entry Medicine (GEM) programme to building Wales' premier health and life sciences research facilities in the Institute of Life Science (ILS), Centre for NanoHealth and Data Science Building.

2014 saw the Research Excellence Framework place Swansea University Medical School equal first in the UK for the quality of its research environment and second for overall research quality. In 2016, it became the first department in Swansea University to win Athena SWAN Silver recognition for its work to promote women in science careers. These developments together with significant investment from external funding organisations have led to the Medical School rising to third in the UK in the Complete University Guide 2018 and UK top ten rankings in a range of other independent guides.

Swansea University is a world-class, research-led, dual campus university. The University was established in 1920 and was the first campus university in the UK. It currently offers around 350 undergraduate courses and 350 postgraduate courses to circa 20,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The University's 46-acre Singleton Park Campus is located in beautiful parkland with views across Swansea Bay. The University's 65-acre science and innovation Bay Campus, which opened in September 2015, is located a few miles away on the eastern approach to the city. It has the distinction of having direct access to a beach and its own seafront promenade. Both campuses are close to the Gower Peninsula, the UK's first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

In 2017, Swansea University became the top university in Wales in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide league table, and also won the inaugural Welsh University of the Year title.

It is also ranked within the top 300 best universities in the world in the Times Higher Education World University rankings.

The results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 showed the University has achieved its ambition to be a top 30 research University, soaring up the league table to 26th in the UK, with the 'biggest leap among research-intensive institutions' (Times Higher Education, December 2014) in the UK.

The University has ambitious expansion plans as it moves towards its centenary in 2020, as it continues to extend its global reach and realising its domestic and international ambitions.

Swansea University is a registered charity. No.1138342. Visit

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