What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone most commonly known for its role in helping with labour, birth and breastfeeding. It might also play a part in helping mothers connect with their newborn babies, and with the development of trust, love and social skills like the ability to recognise emotions and empathise.
Who is oxytocin therapy for?
Oxytocin has been trialled with autistic people who have anxiety, repetitive behaviour or social difficulties.
What is oxytocin therapy used for?
Oxytocin has been trialled as a way of improving the anxiety symptoms and social skills of autistic people, including their ability to make eye contact and recognise emotions. It might also help to reduce repetitive behaviour and relieve gastrointestinal discomfort.
Where does oxytocin therapy come from?
Professor Eric Hollander and colleagues introduced oxytocin infusion as a therapy for autistic people in 1983. These researchers drew on findings from animal studies that showed that oxytocin is linked to animals grooming themselves too much, as well as to repetitive animal behaviour.
What is the idea behind oxytocin therapy for autistic people?
Oxytocin plays a role in developing social skills and reducing repetitive behaviour.
Research has shown that some autistic people have reduced levels of oxytocin and also that their brains deal with oxytocin differently from other people’s brains.
Supporters of this therapy believe oxytocin plays a role in the development of autism and could be a potential treatment for improving social skills and reducing repetitive behaviour. But the actions of oxytocin in the body and its effects on behaviour aren’t yet fully understood.
What does oxytocin therapy involve?
People can take oxytocin by injection or nasal spray or in a lozenge under the tongue. Most studies have used a nasal spray. It doesn’t take much time to administer the oxytocin, but the treatment might be ongoing.
Costs vary depending on the form of oxytocin used – nasal spray, injection or lozenge.
Does oxytocin therapy work for autistic people?
Research shows mixed results. Some research has shown that this therapy has positive effects on social behaviour and physiology, but negative effects have also been reported. Oxytocin is generally considered safe, but some serious side effects have been reported.
More high-quality studies are needed to weigh up any positive effects against negative effects, side effects and long-term risks.
Also, most studies to date have been of short-term use and use by autistic adults. Studies are looking at the use of oxytocin for autistic children and using it in combination with other therapies.
Who practises oxytocin therapy?
These health professionals can also give you information about oxytocin and possible side effects. If your child is prescribed oxytocin, your health professional will monitor your child at regular appointments.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is prescribed oxytocin, you need to ensure your child takes the medication every day. You also need to monitor its effects.
Where can you find a practitioner?
A GP, psychiatrist or paediatrician can prescribe oxytocin.
To find psychiatrists, go to Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists – Find a psychiatrist.
There are many therapies and supports for autistic children. These range from behaviour therapies and developmental approaches to medications and alternative therapies. When you understand the main categories that these therapies and supports fall into, it’ll be easier to work out the approach that will best suit your child.