Some parents with autistic children are using a DIY hormone treatment to improve their learning, one of Australia's leading researchers has warned.
Adam Guastella, associate professor of the University of Sydney's Brain & Mind Research Institute, has been researching the effect of oxytocin on children with autism. His trials have shown that some patients who are given oxytocin as a nasal spray are better at reading social cues than those given a placebo.
But he is worried a number of parents desperate to help their children are having prescriptions for oxytocin made up. ''At the moment you can't get a script for oxytocin and go to the chemist and buy it,'' he said. ''But you can go to your local compounding pharmacist with an individual script from a paediatrician or a psychiatrist and the compounding pharmacist can make up an oxytocin spray. That's what seems to be happening … people seem to be experimenting with the doses and amounts.''
Professor Guastella said more research was needed to establish the treatment's safety and efficacy.
About 1 in 160 Australian children have autism, a disorder that has a range of symptoms including speech and learning difficulties, and problems understanding emotions and social cues. Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone which plays a key role in social interaction, bonding and empathy. It is released in large amounts during and after childbirth.
I saw a naturopath, I saw a specialist, I consulted everyone I could ... It's hard because there are no easy answers with autism.
A clinical psychologist with the country's largest not-for-profit autism specific service provider, Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect), Vicki Gibbs, said the research involving oxytocin and autism was relatively new and she was not aware of children using it outside scientific trials.
The Brain & Mind Research Institute has received a $250,000 research grant from the Bupa
Health Foundation, the charitable arm of private healthcare giant Bupa, to examine the effectiveness of oxytocin treatment.
Molly Edington, whose son Dominic Shakeshaft, 7, was diagnosed with would five years ago, said parents will go to great lengths to improve their child's situation.
''When he was first diagnosed I was on the internet day and night looking for answers,'' she said.
Dominic, who is not part of the trial at the Brain & Mind Research Institute, has had a range of interventions since his diagnosis, including medication and special education.
''I saw a naturopath, I saw a specialist, I consulted everyone I could,'' said Ms Edington, of Wombarra, near Wollongong. ''It's hard because there are no easy answers with autism …
Now I just take each day as it comes and I'm grateful for every small improvement.''