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Stereotype-busting on autism and oxytocin

You choose — which headline is more interesting?

1: “Love hormone helps autistic children bond with others, study shows”

2: “Love hormone increases specific brain activity among autistic children as they view faces”

The first one goes down better. No wonder it was used by The Guardian in a recent article about a study on the effects of extra oxytocin in children with high-functioning autism. When it comes to accurately describing the research, though, headline 2 wins by far.

Here’s what happened in the study: Researchers gave autistic children nasal sprays of oxytocin, the famed “love hormone” associated with birth, maternal behaviors and pair bonding in mammals. Then the children tried to match images of faces and houses while their brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Compared to a placebo nasal spray, the oxytocin made their brain activity look more similar to that of non-autistic children.

This is an important finding, because while other studies have suggested that oxytocin nasal spray can promote social behavior in autistic individuals, we don’t know much about what changes in brain activity underlie those effects. This kind of research works to fill in those blanks. But the increased brain activity found in this study should not be characterized as “bonding with others,” since the oxytocin didn’t make the children act any differently. I imagine the logic behind this characterization is that increased brain activity reflects greater engagement with faces — engagement that can promote social interaction and hence, bonding. That in itself might be true. It’s just not what was shown by this experiment, a point echoed by neuroscientist Uta Frith at the end of the Guardian article.

I have two thoughts about the gap between this study’s findings and the way they were presented in the article. I’ll set aside my feelings about the headline, because I’ve written on that topic before (and let’s be fair, no one wants to use a headline as dry as option 2). What really interests me here is some issues this study highlights about perceptions of autism and oxytocin.

Starting with autism: one take-away from this kind of research is that it points toward a possible treatment to make autistic children more socially normal. And that’s not me reading between the lines: the Guardian article, and many academic papers, specifically considers oxytocin spray as a possible treatment to make autistic children behave more like “typical” kids.

Since some autistics do suffer because of their difficulties with social interaction, that goal does not necessarily reflect a eugenics-type desire to normalize autistic individuals. But this sort of broad characterization of autism — as a disorder that gives people social habits needing to be fixed — obscures a big ethical debate about whether we put too much emphasis on getting people with autism to be like everyone else. For one thing, autism refers to a spectrum of conditions, not a single way of being. Popular culture has probably given the most attention to Asperger’s Syndrome, describing individuals who do fine cognitively but have what are seen as unusual social tendencies. But people with “classic” autism (or Autistic Disorder) can be significantly impaired in their language and cognition.

So, it would mean completely different things to “treat” either case. There just seems like a big gap in clinical necessity between, say, providing classically autistic kids with specific educational support, and giving someone with high-functioning autism nasal spray so that he or she makes more eye contact. The use of eye contact isn’t even constant across cultures. I wonder how much sense it makes, then, to target such fine-grained social habits for treatment. (And these are precisely the kind of issues being raised by growing self-advocacy networks coordinated by people with autism.)

Now, about oxytocin: scientists and journalists have lots of fun calling it the “love hormone.” It’s not crazy to do so, since the hormone often pops up in the context of loving behaviors. But a growing body of research suggests that oxytocin may not be all about the love. Looking at the effects of oxytocin sprays, for example, some researchers suggest that the hormone’s most crucial effect might be lowering anxiety. Sure, reduced anxiety is good for bonding. But a mere absence of anxiety does not love make (or at least I hope not. That would make one of our most celebrated emotions disturbingly mundane).

Sometimes, it looks like we have simple stereotypes for autism and oxytocin — whereby autism is a monolith of people who need help bonding, and oxytocin is the golden ticket hormone for love. But neither story captures all the details. And for neurodevelopmental disorders and brain chemicals, the details may well contain everything useful.

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