How birth hormone oxytocin is offering new hope for children with autism
“Henry has completely come out of his shell, his language is spontaneous and we are able to engage in more meaningful conversations with him,” says mum-of-two Charlotte.
New South Wales mum Charlotte has not one, but two young sons with autism spectrum disorder(ASD). And while therapies have helped, many everyday things, like going to the beach and eating out, are challenging.
Seven-year-old Henry has sensory processing problems, including reluctance to experiment with new foods.
“When dining out as a family we need to ensure that his staple of hot chips is on the menu,” Charlotte tells Kidspot. He also dislikes the beach, because the sand and the sound of the waves cause sensory overload.
Henry also suffers anxiety, and is uneasy in new situations, but “his language development has been our biggest area of need and we have been working on it since he was two,” Charlotte says.
Charlotte’s other son, six-year-old Jack, also experiences anxiety, delayed language, and difficulty in new environments.
ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, affecting the brain’s growth and development. It is roughly four times more common in boys than girls. Symptoms begin in early childhood, and often include difficulties with social interaction, communication, repetitive behaviours and restricted interests.
The condition is lifelong, and currently there is no cure, but a ground-breaking trial is offering new hope for ASD sufferers and their families. Conducted through Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Research Institute, researchers are experimenting with oxytocin - the hormone that stimulates uterine contractions at birth and parent-child bonding - as a treatment.
Lead researcher Professor Adam Guastella, a clinical psychologist, was studying therapies for autism, and noticed that they weren’t addressing social skill development.
“I was trying to think about how we could use what we knew about brain development and the neurobiology of social behaviour, and combine that with what we knew about how people acquire skill around social behaviour,” he tells Kidspot.
Delving into nursing and animal studies for clues revealed that oxytocin “was critical in mammalian bonding and peer recognition.”
To see whether oxytocin might help with social skill development, the team embarked on studies delivering oxytocin to children with ASD through a nasal spray. They weren’t sure what to expect, and were very surprised that they got quite amazing findings.
“Oxytocin was doubling the amount of eye gaze, it was increasing memory, it was speeding attention to social stimuli,” Guastella says. “Something like this hadn’t been shown before with a medication.”
For Charlotte’s boys, the oxytocin trial results have been “remarkable”.
“Henry has completely come out of his shell, his language is spontaneous and we are able to engage in more meaningful conversations with him,” Charlotte says.
He is performing better in the classroom, and has even started nippers.
“Coming from the boy who would not even walk on sand or come near the beach he now is competing in flag races, water games, paddle boards and beach sprints… I couldn't be more proud,” she adds.
Jack’s changes have been subtler, including increased empathy and improved communication.
Being involved in the study is a huge commitment for Charlotte and the boys, necessitating days off school and work. However, the effort has been worth it.
“I feel it is absolutely ground-breaking and the changes I am seeing are nothing short of amazing,” she admits.
Henry and Jack first went through a battery of tests, including play-based assessments, eye movement tests, saliva tests, a medical exam and IQ tests. They were given nasal sprays to use morning and night. And even though they’ve had impressive results, they still don’t know for sure which treatment the boys are receiving.
“We are unsure if we have been given oxytocin or a placebo as it is a double-blind study and we will only find out at the end,” Charlotte says.
While the oxytocin is helping many of the children, Guastella notes that children with ASD are not deficient in the hormone.
“Oxytocin isn’t something that your brain levels are set for life. The amount of oxytocin released changes quite frequently,” he says.
“That’s the way we think about the intervention. We’re not looking for some deficit in oxytocin. We’re thinking about, on a moment-by-moment basis, how can we take advantage to improve social development.”
Nor do all children respond to the treatment. For the next phase of research, the team will look at larger numbers of children over 12 weeks, to see which of them respond and why. They are also putting a marker on the spray so they can track where it works in the brain.
The research is giving hope to families like Charlotte’s and they hope it will do the same for others in years to come.
“One of the hardest things that most families with a child on the spectrum will tell you is that we don't know what their future will look like,” she says.
And while the oxytocin research is very exciting, Guastella warns there’s still work to do.
“This is a developing field, and while the results are interesting we don’t suggest parents go out and start using oxytocin.”
If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, please speak to your local health practitioner for advice.
This article has been republished with permission from Kidspot.