Autism typically involves speech/language problems (communication issues), lack of social bonding or interest in peers, repetitive and odd behaviors, and sensory problems (taste, touch, and sound sensitivities). Some ASD individuals have severe anxiety and trust issues. In some cases their anxiety can contribute to aggressive or defensive behavior. The anxiety, particularly socially, can be a hindrance for one-on-one relationships and in group settings. Obviously, aggressive behavior is problematic for everyone involved.
A natural hormone called oxytocin helps with improved social interaction. It acts to decrease nerve signaling from an area in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala transmits impulses that are connected to a perceived threat. One function of oxytocin is to silence from this area in the brain, hence, diminishing the behavior of anxiety and fear.
Researchers at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine believe that oxytocin could be a useful therapy because for autism because the physiological function of oxytocin fits with those characteristics commonly seen in ASD individuals, “studies with animals have found that oxytocin is involved in a variety of behaviors, including adult-to-adult and parent-child bonding, social memory and cognition, reduction of anxiety and repetitive behaviors,” states researcher Jennifer Bartz.
The Mt. Sinai research team did an infusion study with a group of autistic and Asperger adults. What they found was both a “reduction of repetitive behaviors. No reduction occurred in the placebo group,” reported Eric Hollander.
The research group also evaluated the positive effects of oxytocin on social cognition (the ability to detect facial or voice emotional cues). Each participant listened to pre-recorded speech patterns with various intonations such as happiness, frustration, anger, etc. Each member of the study then has to try and identify the emotion they were hearing. The participants who received oxytocin were able to retain their ability for emotional cue recognition up to two weeks after, whereas those that received a placebo had no change.
Each researcher at Mt. Sina acknowledged that more research is needed, particularly with oxytocin use in children. However, the results of this study are promising because it shows that a hormone can have wide-sweeping effects for many behavioral and cognitive challenges seen in autism.
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- A Child Psychiatrist Talks About Autism (tricitypsychology.com)