Oxytocin affects social bonding—possible treatment for autism and autism spectrum disorders

Autism awareness has recently become a hot topic. (Courtesy of Loannes Baptista)

Autism awareness has recently become a hot topic. (Courtesy of Loannes Baptista)

Whether you plan to teach children and young people with autism and autism spectrum disorders or if you know someone among your family or friends on the spectrum, or if you simply want to do some research on this hot topic, autism has been in the news for many years now. A recent study has shown that oxytocin affects social bonding for kids with autism in a positive way. Could this be the start of more effective treatments?

The research

Autism is a neurological disorder that impacts how the brain works, particularly related to social skills. Individuals with autism or autism spectrum disorders are challenged by these kinds of interactions. Oxytocin is a hormone that occurs naturally in the body. Previous research has shown that it can stimulate the part of the brain that rewards.

Published on December 3, 2013, on medicalnewstoday.com, “Oxytocin activates ‘social’ brain regions in children with autism” details the research conducted by Yale University that was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The researchers found “brain centers associated with reward and emotion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo.” The oxytocin was administered via a nasal spray.

The belief is that the social attunement shown with the help of oxytocin may add students with autism when it comes to social learning and impacting their behavior in a positive way over the long run.

Real stories

On the blog for the organization Autism Speaks, Laurie Tarkan posted on October 22, 2013, “Bonding over Oxytocin.” The article shared stories from the parents of participants involved in the ASPIRE Research Program of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, in Chapel Hill. This trial also was about the use of oxytocin to treat autism and autism spectrum disorders. The parents whose children received the nasal spray with oxytocin saw significant improvements in the way their kids interacted with them and others.

Linmarie Sikich, M.D., who was involved in the UNC trial, “hoped that improving social interactions could enhance learning – and so increase the benefits of therapist-led interventions, as well as success in school.” Sikich added, “So much of how people learn is based on social interactions.”

Learning and autism

There has been a lot of controversy around autism, from what causes it to treatments for the disorder.  But how children with autism and autism spectrum disorders learn is certainly an important aspect of any discussion of the disorder.

The theme of the July/August 2011 issue of Teaching Exceptional Children was “Autism-Solving the Puzzle” and Barbara Ludlow introduced the thinking behind the issue. She said, “Given such intense interest in autism, we can expect to see new findings emerge about which instructional and management practices are most effective for most, if not all, children with ASD as well as students who have similar impairments due to other complex disability conditions.”

Ludlow also highlights some fundamental areas that have been proven effective in the education of students with autism:

  • Developing multiple video models to promote acquisition and mastery of skills.
  • Training peer mentors to implement video modeling for social skills instruction.
  • Designing visual supports to enhance communication, social interactions, and task completion.
  • Developing literacy skills for reading comprehension by capitalizing on student strengths.
  • Using movement-based sensory interventions to reduce self-stimulatory behaviors.
  • Implementing instruction that utilizes cognitive strengths and minimizes deficits to teach English.

Certainly these techniques can be effective, but with improved social bonding, how much more could kids with autism achieve? Whatever the future of research into autism and autism spectrum disorders, a vital part of it will be the social bonding aspect for these individuals. As Dr. Sikich said, “The ability to relate to other people, to communicate with them, is one of the things that make us most human.”

Want to learn more about learning and developmental disabilities? Check out Questia—particularly the sections on autism and autism spectrum disorders

What do you think? Should more research be done on oxytocin before it is administered to a wider group of people with autism? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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