The Behavioral Pharmacology of Prescription Drugs: Their Role in Problem Behavior and Skill Acquisition

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Many diagnosed with various disorders regularly consume a variety of prescription drugs that do not improve the core symptoms of the disorder but instead are prescribed as adjunct therapy to treat problem behaviors such as anxiety, compulsions and other repetitive behaviors, mood disturbances, irritability, sleep disorders, aggression, self-injury, stereotypy, and hyperactivity. Prescription drugs may effectively decrease the frequency of these problem behaviors but they also have other behavioral effects that could play a role in the initiation and maintenance of problem behavior and the acquisition of adaptive skills. In this article, I will discuss the many side effects of prescription drugs and suggest that these will not only affect the individual’s functioning at a global level (food intake, sleep, and sexual behavior), but that they can also serve to increase or decrease the value of other reinforcers, that they can function as a discriminative stimulus in the presence of which other reinforcers may or may not be available, that they may act as positive or negative reinforcers, and that they can serve as setting events. These behavioral functions of prescription drugs should be taken into account when assessing the function of an individual’s problem behavior and the progress of skill acquisition programs.

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