How Oxytocin, a Natural Hormone, Could Improve Social Skills in Children with Autism

How Oxytocin, a Natural Hormone, Could Improve Social Skills in Children with Autism

Ocytocin is often called the 'love hormone' or the 'cuddle hormone.' It has many effects, from appetite suppression to inhibiting the release of cortisol. More famously, it is important for every kind of relationship.

Basically, this hormone is released by any loving physical contact, including hugging and holding.

There has been a rocky relationship between autism and oxytocin, with evidence for and against its supplementation in autistic children being discovered for over a decade. Well, as it turns out, oxytocin has a beneficial effect on pro-social behaviors, and supplementing children on the spectrum with this hormone may possibly lead to an improvement in their social skills!

The many physical roles of the ‘cuddle hormone’

Oxytocin is a peptide hormone produced by the hypothalamus. When triggered by the body, it is released by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland. The hormone plays many roles in the body, from the physiological to the psychological.

Physiologically, oxytocin mostly deals with systems related to reproduction, but also has its hands elsewhere. It suppresses appetite, and itself is suppressed when other triggers tell your brain that you are hungry.

Suckling babies cause the release of oxytocin, which then encourage the mammary glands to release milk. This hormone also has a role in the birth of the baby, as it causes uterine contractions during labor. And occasionally afterward as the body adjusts to postpartum life.

Also during labor, oxytocin from the mother crosses into the baby's brain to desensitize it for the otherwise potentially traumatic birth experience.

High levels of oxytocin can also reduce how much you need to urinate. It can also reduce inflammation and improve wound healing.

What about oxytocin’s psychological roles?

Psychologically, oxytocin is important for relationships. Higher levels of oxytocin when interacting with people makes it more likely for you to think of those people as part of your group. Oddly enough, evidence suggests that this works even on an international scale!

Down to the individual level, it helps control your levels of fear and anxiety. The more oxytocin you have flowing through your bloodstream, the less likely you are to fear a social situation.

It is also an antidepressant, and high levels of oxytocin can improve your mood. It also has an effect on your generosity. People seem to be more generous the more oxytocin is in their blood.

However, this relates to whether the other person is in your group or not; people with higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to be dishonest to people outside their group when the outcome of the interaction would then favor their group.

The hormone gets its nickname as the 'love hormone' because of its effect on romantic relationships and attraction.

The production of oxytocin is promoted by any kind of physical affection. Positive physical contact releases this useful hormone.

Oxytocin and autism

It has been thought for a long time now that oxytocin and autism have a relationship. The idea is that children with autism have lower levels of oxytocin than their peers, and some people think it may be a cause of autism.

However, that is not quite the case. Oxytocin levels in the bloodstreams seems to be more tied to how much oxytocin is in their parents' blood, rather than whether or not they are on the spectrum.

Does this blow the assertion of this article that oxytocin supplementation can help some children with autism out of the water? Not quite.

Two things. The first is to recognize that the relationship between autism and oxytocin is complicated and not fully understood. We are still learning.

The second is that bloodstream levels of oxytocin are not the entire story. Oxytocin interacts with multiple organs of the body. While children with autism typically have oxytocin levels no different from their peers, they do tend to have fewer oxytocin receptors.

Think back to all of the effects of oxytocin we went through above. Not everything is psychological. It is very possible that children with autism produce equal amounts of oxytocin, and some effects are no different than in their peers, but for the psychological effects they may be at a disadvantage.

Unfortunately, most of the research so far has been equivocal, with no clear answer one way or the other whether oxytocin supplementation works.

The research

Dr. Karen Parker from Stanford University decided to rectify the situation. She and her colleagues have completed a study using proper methodology and science, and have come to the conclusion that intranasal oxytocin supplementation does help some children with autism.

This research also concluded that it requires completely personalized treatment. It does not help every child, and does not help in every way. Each child is unique.

The study was published in the Jounral Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences July 10, 2017. It is titled Intranasal oxytocin treatment for social deficits and biomarkers of response in children with autism. The researchers were Karen Parker, Ozge Oztan, Robin Libove, Raena Sumiyoshi, Lisa Jackson, Debra Karhson, Jacqueline Summers, Kyle Hinman, Kara Motonaga, Jennifer Phillips, Dean Carson, Joseph Garner, and Antonio Hardan, all from Stanford University.

The participants were thirty-two children on the autism spectrum. Twenty-seven were male, and five female. All were between six and twelve years old. Fourteen were part of the experimental group, and eighteen were part of the control group.

The experiment was double-blind, so both the researchers interacting with the children and their parents did not know who was chosen to be given oxytocin or a placebo.

Each child was administered a nasal spray twice a day for a month. The control group was given a placebo while the experimental group was administered oxytocin. Both groups were measured for biological factors beforehand, including the amount of oxytocin in their bloodstream.

They tested for several factors, including social ability and repetitive behaviors. They also kept an eye open for adverse side effects.

The experimental group showed improvement in their social skills, while over the same time period the control group actually worsened.

Other symptoms of autism, however, were completely unaffected by either the placebo or the oxytocin.

As the researchers had tested the oxytocin levels before administering any, they used the data to see whether or not the child's level of this hormone had any effect. And it did, to such a degree that it could be used to accurately predict whether or not the child would benefit socially from the additional oxytocin.

Overall, the researchers came to the conclusion that oxytocin supplementation could increase the quality of life for children on the autism spectrum, so long as the children had low levels of oxytocin before the treatment.

Final thoughts

Before supplementing anything at all, talk it over extensively with your child's doctor.

If you are interested in using oxytocin to help your child socially, then bringing any available research to your doctor might not be a bad idea. Testing their oxytocin levels before giving them additional hormones could also be possible.

Be careful about non-prescribed oxytocin supplements. Some of those have been discovered to contain chemicals that potentially endanger the children who take the medicine.

Keep in mind that the body does produce oxytocin naturally. With that being said, showing positive physical affection is extremely important for all children. Some children will resist this, so aim to avoid stress, but if your child is neutral or receptive, try that.

Cuddle your child, and the little bit of extra cuddle hormone produced may improve their quality of life slightly.