Are autistic children high on themselves?
Autistic children appear to be self-absorbed. They sit in cornersfor hours, flapping their arms, rocking back and forth, or whirling in circles; sometimes they bang their heads against walls or hit themselves. With their lack of responsiveness to others — they often don’t even look up when their parents speak to them — and their poor command of language, they seem almost beyond help.
At one time autism was thought to be caused by inattentive parents, whose coldness forced children to retreat into themselves. But in the past few years blame has shifted to genes and brain chemistry. Studies of twins have shown that autism runs in families, and four years ago researchers in California found that the drug fenflu ramine, which lowers levels of the neuro- transmitter serotonin, moderates some symptoms. But while serotonin may be involved in the malady, according to Barbara Herman, a neuroscientist at the Brain Research Center at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., overactivity of opiate- like transmitters also seems to play an important role.
Unlike a normal child, who usually panics or cries when separated from his parents, an autistic child often displays no emotion. He may also be less responsive to pain. Both traits, Herman thinks, could result from an overactive opioid system. Research in animals has suggested that opioid peptides reinforce the bonds between parents and children: monkeys given drugs that interfere with opioids cry more when separated from their mothers, whereas those given morphine, which mimics opioid peptides, often act as if nothing’s wrong. The theory is that monkeys — and healthy children — get a surge of euphoria-producing peptides with every dose of affection, in effect addicting them to their parents. But autistic children, who already have high levels of opioids, may not need the peptide surges that affection provides, and therefore may never really learn attachment. Furthermore, since opioids act as analgesics, their overactivity could help explain the children’s unresponsiveness to pain.
Based on these assumptions, Herman and her colleagues gave the opioid-blocking drug naltrexone to five autistic children, and found that they didn’t flap their arms or whirl as much, and that they made more eye contact with familiar people. Perhaps most important, parents reported that when the children came home after treatment, they seemed to enjoy being hugged more. Herman warns that because of the small size of the sample, her results shouldn’t be interpreted too broadly. ”It may be that two types of autism exist,” she says, ”one due to overactive opioids, the other to serotonin. Naltrexone isn’t a cure, but it will go a long way toward helping us understand these syndromes.”
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