Recently, a review article was published in the Harvard Review of Psychology indicating that the use of the hormone oxytocin may be beneficial in treating both autism and schizophrenia. The article was especially exciting for autism specialists and parents of autistic children who have been told that there are few treatment options for autism. While the research that has been done is promising overall, much more information will have to be gathered before any real benefit can be determined.
Many autistic people have sensory difficulties. These include struggling to focus on important information while tuning out background noise and activity. The recent research suggested that oxytocin plays an important role in this “signal to noise” brain filtering. Oxytocin, called the “love hormone,” is most known for its role in initiating labor and breast milk flow in pregnant women. It promotes bonding, and since autistic people can struggle with social skills and empathy, researchers hope that the use of oxytocin will help people on the autism spectrum with social bonding.
Of course, the results have varied. In June, Science Daily published a piece stating that oxytocin may be an ineffective autism treatment. Since autism is such a complex condition, the article said, it is impossible to determine the effectiveness of oxytocin on it with the limited research that has been done. The article also referred to a study done by Professor Mark Dadds of the UNSW School of Psychology in which 38 autistic boys between the ages of 7 and 16 were tested. The results showed that, compared to a placebo, oxytocin did not produce significant improvement in social skills or emotion recognition.
Other studies, however, have shown more positive results. The National Institutes of Health awarded $12.6 million in funding earlier this year to conduct a national clinical trial using oxytocin nasal spray. The results of the 12 week trial were mixed, but many autistic children showed a genuine improvement in social skills and alertness after using the nasal spray. Autism support websites such as www.autismspeaks.com are also full of personal testimonies of parents who have given oxytocin nasal spray to their autistic children and gotten good results.
All the conflicting results really mean is that there is much more research to be done. In addition to determining if there truly is a benefit to using oxytocin to treat autism, studies need to be done to figure out how well it works and whether it works for all children on the spectrum or just some cases. Proper dosage and the effects of treatment over time will also need to be considered.
While results of these studies have varied and it still has not been determined whether or not oxytocin is truly an effective autism aid, much of the research has been quite promising. While further studies are being done, it’s best to seek traditional treatment for your autistic child. Get a proper diagnosis from a mental health therapist, work with your child to develop good habits, and keep up-to-date on current studies.