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A New Drug Designed to Help Autistic People With Social Skills Is Currently in Clinical Trial

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Editor's Note

Autism is not something that needs to be “cured” or feared, but it is still a major research topic due to little being known about it. Society holds misconceptions about autism, and some of these misconceptions come from research. Because of this, The Mighty looked into this month’s research news on autism. The Mighty also respects the use of identity-first language as it relates to autistic individuals, though this is not the case in the research community and may be shown below.

A new drug designed to help people on the autism spectrum with social skills is currently being tested in a clinical trial. While the drug, balovaptan, is of interest to the medical community, many within the autism community are against “treating” or “curing” autism, advocating instead for neurodiversity acceptance.

Balovaptan acts on receptors, an outside structure of a cell that communicates commands to the inside of the cell, of vasopressin, a hormone from the brain which influences social behavior. The medication is supposed to block a specific receptor of vasopressin, which might be able to prevent social anxiety, Larry Young, professor of psychiatry at Emory University told Spectrum News.

Currently, there are no medications to treat the “core symptoms of autism,” Roger Jou, clinician and assistant clinical professor at Yale University, told The Mighty. These “symptoms” can include trouble with social communication and interaction. Jou is one of the researchers studying a new medication to “treat” these issues with communication and interaction.

The idea of using medication to change characteristics, or “symptoms” as researchers call them, of people on the autism spectrum is controversial.

“Sometimes these ‘core symptoms’ are what enable us to function in the neurotypical world, but for some they are indeed restrictive,” N. A. LeBrun, a member of The Mighty’s autism community said. “It’s an individual thing. For example, my repetitive stims like tapping my fingers when in public, enable me to better focus and communicate with others, whereas I know that some neurotypical people find ‘flapping’ to be off-putting, but does that say more about them or the autistic person who is carrying out the behavior?”

LeBrun said they would not consider taking a medication like this, though their teenaged self may have been more inclined because of a desire to fit in. David Gray-Hammond, another member of The Mighty’s autism community, said he’d considerate it, but he’d be concerned the medication may take away the gifts and talents his autism has given him. He said he struggles with social interaction, but he wouldn’t jeopardize the positives to potentially help with communication.

“Most of us in the autism community do not feel that we are ‘disordered’ and therefore would lean away from treatment. Generally, we enjoy celebrating our unique gifts and talents,” Gray-Hammond said. “That said, for some people the symptoms of autism are very overwhelming, and it is important that these people have the option of medication open to them.”

Currently, behavioral therapies — like applied behavior analysis or ABA therapy — are used to “treat” autism. ABA therapy, however, has a complicated history and has been denounced by autistic adults for the way it trains autistic people to behave and function. 

Balovaptan was designated a breakthrough therapy by the FDA after a smaller clinical trial showed it was safe to take and improved social communications. The FDA designates drugs as “breakthrough therapies” when a medication shows early promise, according to a statement from Roche Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed the drug. Though the initial clinical trial that led to the designation consisted of adult autistic males, this new trial, called the aViation study, is currently recruiting children and adolescents on the spectrum ages 5 to 17. 

Whether this medication will make it to market is uncertain, however, it’s important to note that balovaptan is not a cure, nor does autism need a cure.

“Human beings are infinite complex; therefore, I would first need to understand those aspects of self where people don’t want to see change,” Jou said about people on the spectrum who might be worried a medication could change a part of who they are. “No medicine taken as prescribed is going to change fundamentally who a person is. The overarching goal is to improve quality of life by really helping people do the things they really want to do by toning down some of the barriers. With fewer barriers, people can better express who they are which provides freedom and not restriction.”

Image via GettyImages/GreenApple78.

Originally published: March 29, 2018
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