A new theory has been proposed that may explain the development of Aspergers. The new theory suggests that some of the symptoms of Aspergers (e.g., need for routine and resistance to change) could be linked to low levels of the stress hormone Cortisol.
The body produces Cortisol, among other hormones, in stressful situations. Cortisol increases blood pressure and blood sugar levels, among other duties, to signal the body’s need to adapt to changes occurring around it. It’s thought that the increase in Cortisol shortly after waking helps jump-start the brain for the day ahead.
Normally, individuals have a surge of this hormone shortly after waking, with levels gradually decreasing throughout the day. It is thought this surge makes the brain alert, preparing the body for the day and helping the individual to be aware of changes happening around them. Researchers have discovered that Aspergers kids do not experience this surge.
Cortisol is one of a family of stress hormones that acts like a ‘red alert’ that is triggered by stressful situations allowing a person to react quickly to changes around them. In most individuals, there is a two-fold increase in levels of this hormone within 30 minutes of waking up, with levels gradually declining during the day as part of the internal body clock. Studies have found that Aspies don’t have this peak, although levels of the hormone still decreased during the day as normal. This difference in stress hormone levels could be really significant in explaining why Aspergers kids are less able to react and cope with unexpected change. These findings are important as they give us a clearer understanding about how some of the symptoms we see in Aspergers are linked to how a child adapts to change at a chemical level.
The new study suggests that Aspergers kids may not adjust normally to the challenge of a new environment on waking. This may affect the way they subsequently engage with the world around them.
Aspergers children notably have very repetitive or narrow patterns of thought and behavior, such as being obsessed with either a single object or topic. Though tending to become experts in this limited domain, they have otherwise very limited social skills.
Understanding the symptoms of Aspergers as being a “stress response” rather than a “behavioral problem” may help parents and teachers develop strategies for avoiding situations that might cause distress in Aspergers kids.
The next step in the research will be to look at whether kids with other types of autism also lack a peak of Cortisol after waking.
Additional information on Cortisol...
Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands and involved in the following functions and more:
• Immune function
• Inflammatory response
• Insulin release for blood sugar maintenance
• Proper glucose metabolism
• Regulation of blood pressure
Normally, it’s present in the body at higher levels in the morning and at its lowest at night. Small increases of Cortisol have some positive effects:
• A burst of increased immunity
• A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
• Heightened memory functions
• Helps maintain homeostasis in the body
• Lower sensitivity to pain
Low Cortisol can be treated with synthetic Cortisol drugs, also known as corticosteroids. These include hydrocortisone, prednisone and prednisolone.