Fighting Sensory Overload: the Oxytocin Experiment

The last decade, I have been plagued by sensory overload. Light(s) bothered me, I would not be able to understand people properly in a pub (too many sounds). I could not sit on the average pub chair (not soft enough!), I could not wear every fabric (too scratchy), or would get annoyed by the weight of my shoes or my watch (both, too heavy).

Last year, this only got worse and worse. I was very stressed and the sensory overload just exploded: I could not deal with sounds, human interaction, touch and physical proximity anymore. Everything was too much, and it felt pretty awful. I escaped my home, which is in the capital of our country, since the overload of sensory stimuli was soooo overwhelming. When sounds started to cause pain in my body, I knew I HAD to leave.

Somehow I had figured out my complaints weren’t just being caused by regular stress or a regular burnout (which I thought for a long time), so by then, I had already asked my GP for a referral to a specialized centre for autism diagnosis in women.

For months I stayed in a vacation home, to calm down and get away from all the sensory input. But even here I was being bothered by the few sounds in my surroundings: the airplanes, the cars, the humming of my fridge, the quacking frogs and the endless string of man-made machines humanity uses on a daily basis. I was experiencing the sound of every plane as if I were ON the airport, next to the engine with my ears, and was baffled a human can even experience a sound in this way. All these sounds were pulling me into a cycle of stress –> worsening of sensory overload –> creating more stress –> worsening the sensory overload –> inability to sleep –> worsening of sensory overload and autism symptoms –> stress –> repeat, repeat, repeat.

So, getting more and more desperate, I was looking for an ‘out’ in this cycle of horror. With all my medical knowledge, and my newfound knowledge of autism (I read up obsessively to gather all information to get some control over my ‘new’ situation) I figured oxytocin might have a role in autism.

Oxytocin, also know as the ‘cuddle’ or ‘love’ hormone, is important in the bonding of people. I figured it was also important in calming people down, when they are stressed. Regular people seek comfort and hugs, when they are distressed, and then they calm down. Oxytocin has a big role in this. But autistic people get stressed when they are hugged. The hugs are overwhelming, and not working the way they should…

But I guess we are all in need of the calming effect oxytocin has, which is being released during skin-to-skin contact. After theorizing for quite a while on this, I read about a man who tried oxytocin for his autism, in one of the autism Facebook groups I was in. After reading this, I was sure: I NEED to try oxytocin. Of course, I first read up on research. Oxytocin has been tested in small samples various times, and documented by researchers. Most studies did show improvement in the autistic subjects, and the adverse reactions were very rare. Although there are no data about long term use yet, it seems to be a ‘safer’ medicine to me than antipsychotics, which can be very harmful in the long run.

So, after studying oxytocin, I decided to take a chance, and try it. The first time I tried, I only sprayed one dosage in my nose… and waited. I was quite surprised: a very relaxed feeling came over my body, and I fell in a semi-sleep kind of state. 🙂 After this first, positive experience, I decided to put myself on a medication regimen of 2 sprays of oxytocin 3 times a day, based on the pharmacological characteristics of oxytocin (short half-life) instead of using one hoge dosage once a day (done in most of the research I have read).

It worked out pretty well: I finally got out of the awful cycle of worsening overload, my meltdowns disappeared, and the volume of the extreme loudness of all the sounds in my environment was slowly going down. 🙂 Of course, it is not a wonder drug which makes all your problems go away in 1 day, but it did seem to turn around something I wasn’t able to get out of on my own, not even with all the aids I was using.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thank you so much for the information you share. As a mother of one son in the spectrum (12) and probably a daughter, too (6), I am on a journey of looking for helpful information.
    This article made me wonder: do you think oxytocin would be helpful and safe to use for children/young adults, too? I read the underlying neurobiological article and I don’t want to experiment for now, just trying to get the whole picture. What is your professional opinion?

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. In the link to the medical article, they refer to one study which has been conducted in children. They adjusted the dosage to the weight of the boys. I think it can be helpful in children too, but I do not know enough to say anything about safety. I would start with aids like deep pressure (weighted blankets, squeeze vest), which are helping me tremendously. I will keep blogging about the things I am doing to manage the sensory overload. Most of them will be helpful for children too!

      Here the info of the research which was conducted in children, with oxytocin.

      J Autism Dev Disord. 2014 Mar;44(3):521-31. doi: 10.1007/s10803-013-1899-3.
      Nasal oxytocin for social deficits in childhood autism: a randomized controlled trial.

      Dadds MR1, MacDonald E, Cauchi A, Williams K, Levy F, Brennan J.

      Abstract
      The last two decades have witnessed a surge in research investigating the application of oxytocin as a method of enhancing social behaviour in humans. Preliminary evidence suggests oxytocin may have potential as an intervention for autism. We evaluated a 5-day ‘live-in’ intervention using a double-blind randomized control trial. 38 male youths (7-16 years old) with autism spectrum disorders were administered 24 or 12 international units (depending on weight) intranasal placebo or oxytocin once daily over four consecutive days. The oxytocin or placebo was administered during parent-child interaction training sessions. Parent and child behaviours were assessed using parent reports, clinician ratings, and independent observations, at multiple time points to measure side-effects; social interaction skills; repetitive behaviours; emotion recognition and diagnostic status. Compared to placebo, intranasal oxytocin did not significantly improve emotion recognition, social interaction skills, or general behavioral adjustment in male youths with autism spectrum disorders. The results show that the benefits of nasal oxytocin for young individuals with autism spectrum disorders may be more circumscribed than suggested by previous studies, and suggest caution in recommending it as an intervention that is broadly effective.

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