One in 68 Australian children is diagnosed with the disorder, which affects their communication skills and makes it difficult for them to interact socially.
“Often people with autism are incredibly bright and have lots of potential in so many ways,” Associate Professor Adam Guastella, from the University of Sydney, said.
“But they often miss the important cues that guide social behaviour.”
In the study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, Researchers at the University’s Brain and Mind Institute looked at 31 children aged three to eight and monitored them over 15 weeks.
During a five-week period, the children were given a nasal spray containing oxytocin.
Sydney mother Christine Blue said the impact on her son Hayden was dramatic.
“By week three and four my husband and I were saying ‘yes this is the active ingredient and we are noticing a difference’. By week five we were just really, really pleased with the results,” she said.
“He was more willing to be in a group. He was more willing to be involved in a conversation … He was just a happier child. His eye contact was better. It wasn’t perfect but it was better. And he was just talking a whole lot more.”
Ms Blue said the oxytocin spray seemed to unlock her child’s personality, and allow him to reap the rewards from years of therapy.
“We were doing a whole lot of intervention before oxytocin,” she said.
“We weren’t really seeing a lot of results. The oxytocin trial seemed to be the point where Hayden was able to put all the puzzle pieces together.
“And from that point on Hayden’s development has gone from strength to strength.
“For example … he’d be in the car and come out with ‘I like being in the car’, and because we’re not used to hearing anything from him, my husband and I looked at each other and were like ‘did he say that? Did that come from Hayden?'”
Now the vibrant seven-year-old is happy to discuss his love for dinosaurs, monster movies and his sister, Lauren.
Associate Professor Guastella said the results were promising, with about a third of participants in the study showing significant improvement.
“It’s the first time that medication has ever been shown to improve social interaction skill. These results tell us that we’ve got something that seems to be working for a portion of people and is doing something which hasn’t been done before,” he said.
Oxytocin finding ‘no silver bullet’, researchers say
“Oxytocin is not a cure for autism and there isn’t likely to be a single treatment for autism in the near future,” Associate Professor Guastella said.
He said when there was more evidence that the nasal spray worked he had no doubt drug companies would be able to distribute it.
“Oxytocin nasal spray is available. Drug companies need to see more evidence and more research to be able to justify their distribution of it across Australia.”
The big question really is how does oxytocin affect the brain to influence social behaviour? And that’s what we’re leading the world in currentlyAssociate Professor Adam Guastella
He said researchers at the Brain and Mind Institute and the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth were recruiting 120 children with autism aged under 12 for a larger study.
“The big question really is how does oxytocin affect the brain to influence social behaviour? And that’s what we’re leading the world in currently,” he said.
Ms Blue said she was delighted with the results, but was pragmatic about the potential prescription of the spray in the future.
“Oxytocin won’t make your child normal,” she said.
“But speech pathology and OT [occupational therapy] won’t make your child normal. There’s no cure for autism. There’s just good management.”
“I want more families to think about having their children in clinical trials.”
“Autism is just increasing in our society. We’re not going away. There’s going to be more of us coming to a school near you.”
For the Blue family the spray had no major side effects, but some participants experienced issues with thirst, urination and constipation.