The Physiology of Autism

  • Our bodies are built to deal with short term stress not chronic stress. Chronic levels of cortisol damage cells in the hippocampus which impairs our ability to learn (Medina, 2008).
  • Children with autism have elevated levels of cortisol and tend to respond to novel and threatening stimuli with extreme cortisol reactions (Corbett et al, 2006).
  • Oxytocin can help decrease stress by acting on the amygdala and inhibiting cortisol production (Neumann, 2008; Heinrichs et al, 2003).
  • Oxytocin might lead to improved speech comprehension in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (Hollander et al, 2007). 
  • Low functioning children with autism have higher levels cortisol throughout the day than higher functioning children or neurotypical children. Researchers suggest that the elevated cortisol level may be linked to functionality. (Putnam et al, 2015)


  • Corbett, B. A., Mendoza, S., Abdullah, M., Wegelin, J. A., & Levine, S. (2006). Cortisol circadian rhythms and response to stress in children with autism. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31(1), 59-68.
  • Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., & Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry, 54, 1389–1398.
  • Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Pear Press.
  • Neumann, I. D. (2008). Brain oxytocin: a key regulator of emotional and social behaviours in both females and males. Journal of neuroendocrinology, 20(6), 858-865.
  • Hollander, E., Bartz, J., Chaplin, W., Phillips, A., Sumner, J., Soorya, L., … & Wasserman, S. (2007). Oxytocin increases retention of social cognition in autism. Biological psychiatry, 61(4), 498-503.
  • Putnam, S. K., Lopata, C., Thomeer, M. L., Volker, M. A., & Rodgers, J. D. (2015). Salivary Cortisol Levels and Diurnal Patterns in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 1-13.


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