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BMJ Group Medical Reference


This information is for people who have a child with autism. It tells you about methylphenidate, a treatment used for autism. It is based on the best and most up-to-date research.

Does it work?

Yes. If your child with autism is also hyperactive, this medication may help them be less restless and irritable.

What is it?

Methylphenidate is a type of stimulant drug. It makes certain parts of the brain more active, the parts that are involved in concentration and the likelihood of being distracted.

Doctors usually prescribe it for children who have a condition called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. You may know that condition by its short name, ADHD. To learn more, see our information on Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Some children with autism are also hyperactive. They may find it hard to pay attention and sit still. And they act without thinking.

It may seem strange to treat hyperactivity with a stimulant. But drugs such as methylphenidate have been used for many years to treat ADHD. And research shows that they work. [82]

The brand names of methylphenidate include Ritalin, Concerta XL, and Equasym XL. This drug comes as tablets or capsules.

How can it help?

Studies show that children with autism who take methylphenidate get less active and less irritable. [83] [84]

In one study, almost half of the children taking the drug got much less active. [83]

How does it work?

We don't know exactly how methylphenidate might calm down children with autism who are hyperactive. But this drug affects chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters. [85] These chemicals help signals travel between nerve cells. Doctors think that methylphenidate may work by increasing the level of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. [85] [86]

Can it be harmful?

Yes. Methylphenidate can have side effects. Almost 1 in 5 children dropped out of one study because they had problems from the drug. [84]

One small study compared two doses of this drug in children with autism or similar conditions. [84] Children taking the higher dose were more irritable and wanted to be alone more than the children taking the lower dose.

Larger studies have looked at using methylphenidate to treat hyperactivity in children who do not have autism. In those studies, about half of all children got mild side effects. [87] These included:

  • Not feeling like eating

  • Losing weight

  • Having a hard time falling asleep.

These side effects often go away after a few weeks, or if your child takes a lower dose. But about 3 in 100 children get more serious side effects, such as depression, worrying, and being irritable.

If your child takes this drug, your doctor will closely watch their growth and blood pressure. This is to make sure these things stay in the normal range.

Last Updated: August 29, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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