There is a fascinating article this week in Newsweek about how oxytocin might help people with autism. And it comes in a nasal spray!
Oxytocin is the hormone that your body produces when you’re feeling connnected with another person. Breastfeeding produces it, orgasm produces it, and interestingly enough, deep pressure massage produces it. That might explain why I feel soooo good after my massages!
There are a few studies that seem to indicate that children with autism are low in oxytocin- that they do not feel the “high” of being connected to another person. There are also studies that show that you can suppress the development of oxytocin by serious neglect. If a child does not feel loved, or have the opportunity to love back, the body literally does not learn how to love. Not the mind. Not the heart. The body.
In other words, it just might add some weight to the “refrigerator mother” theory as a cause of autism. You CAN “create” a child who cannot love- physically and biologically cannot love- with enough neglect and abuse. Now, MOST children with autism do NOT come from this background, so it is absolutely not the ONLY cause- but it might be one of the causes… However, I do think that abuse and neglect are more likely to “create” a sociopathic child- who also is low in oxytocin- and cannot love.
The research study found that kids with high-functioning autism and Aspergers who were given oxytocin were more affectionate, more connected and more interested in other people. They have also found that an oxytocin boost reduces the “fight or flight” panic or anxiety that so many kids with autism experience. It is hypothesized that so many of the repetitive behaviors that kids with autism do are related to anxiety.
The article then asked if “typical” people would see a benefit as well- similar to the recent finding that so many “superwomen”- women who are doing it all: super mother, productive at work and great wives- are doing so with the help of stimulants. Would oxytocin make us all more loving and less anxious? We’re all looking for ways to reduce stress, right?
The scientists’ response was “Probably not”. Too much oxytocin reduces natural wariness of typical people. It slows down the “fight or flight ” aspect so much that people are not aware of potentially harmful situations. They also mentioned that it is, however, possible, since so many people self-medicate with alcohol in a similar manner.
I just couldn’t help thinking about the old joke: “What is the sorority’s girl’s mating call?… “I’m soooooo drunk!” Do they have a reduced sense of safety? Oh yes. Are they full of affection? Ever been to a sorority party? Ohhhh YES! If oxytocin can reduce anxiety and make you affectionate, without the ill affects of alcohol, I have worries about it being used as a “roufie” or the infamous Date Rape drug. Or the “woman scorned” drug. How many of us have fantastized about “that” guy, the one who rejected us, falling for us when he realizes what he’s missed? And we fantasize saying “No” just to get even? Maybe it’s just me…
All of this is pure speculation, of course. The study had a grand total of 17 children in it. The FDA is certainly not anywhere close to approving it for use with children with autism. And who knows if they improved simply because someone was paying attention (known as the Hawthorne effect, it explains why so many programs “show improvement” in children)? And something that has the potential to be abused? There are some hurdles to be overcome…
But, I see great potential in it being researched as a means to help our kids, our loved ones, our students. And all in a handy dandy nasal spray!