The sun rose above Mount San Jacinto, east of Lake Elsinore. Fog drifted across the cold water and Sarah sat shotgun in the red mini-van while two boys sat in the back, including her boyfriend, Brendan. I was unsure about this love affair because they were both fifteen year-old autistic kids and Brendan spent all his time in the van sleeping while Sarah told me about anime that she watches, including her favorite; Hetalia: Axis Powers. When I heard them talk, it never went beyond what they were going to do that weekend or what they ate the night before. I’m not exactly sure what constitutes love, but they sounded more like two kids without any other friends.
Sarah asked me to change it to the 60s on 6 while she sat twirling a strand of brown hair and humming to the music. It was the only thing I knew that calmed her down on the bad days. She never listened to any contemporary songs, just oldies, her favorite band being the Beatles. Within the first couple beats of a song Sarah would name the band, song, and year it came out.
“The Lemon Pipers, Green Tambourine, 1968,” she said.
We drove down Lake Street towards the freeway. All the kids in the van watched the hordes of other children crossing the street towards a public elementary. The children outside of the van chased after each other or stood around lazily, avoiding another day at school. Sarah watched this scene everyday while being driven 26 miles to non-public school. I still wonder if Sarah got jealous seeing these kids heading to a “normal” school.
I picked up one more kid farther north in a small suburb. Sarah was unusually quiet that morning as we merged on to the 15 North towards Riverside. I saw her fumbling with her belt but I figured it was just on too tight. When I looked over again she had it wrapped around her neck twice, her eyes and jugular bulged and reddened. I pulled the van over and managed to take the pink nylon belt from her but her hands grabbed her throat next. She screamed, “I just want to fucking die. Just let me fucking die,” over and over.
If you look up Oxytocin on Wikipedia it will tell you that it is a mammalian neurohypophysial hormone that acts primarily as a neuromodulator in the brain. In other words, it is a hormone that is secreted during specific moments in an individual’s life. It also has a couple of nicknames – “The Love Hormone,” or, “The Bonding Hormone.” Sometimes it can be triggered with an action as simple as a hug or holding hands, sometimes it takes much more of an effort, like reaching an orgasm with a significant other.
Commuters tore down the 15. A yellow and blue call box sat next to the passenger side door of the mini-van. I pinned Sarah by the shoulders to her seat for over thirty minutes. The principal, Ms. Tony, was talking over the radio saying everything she could to calm her down. “Be rational, Sarah. This isn’t the behavior that will get you back to public school,” but nothing worked. Then Brendan decided he had something to say. He placed his hand on her shoulder. Sarah turned her head towards him and their eyes locked.
“I love you, Sarah.”
“Really?” she asked.
“Ever since the first time I laid eyes on you, I loved you. You’re beautiful”
I felt her body transform, go limp. She melted into the fabric and cushions of the seat. Her breathing slowed and she announced that she was ready to go to school. In the span of fifteen seconds she went from suicidal to totally relaxed, all after hearing those three words.
What causes that? Love?
Or could it just have been oxytocin flowing from her posterior pituitary gland.
A recent scientific study looked at the relationship between human interaction and hormones, trust and oxytocin. Individuals were given a “trust game” where one person, (the Investor) was given a sum of money and was told they could either keep it or share it with another person. If it was shared, the sum towards the person who received the gift was then tripled and that person had to choose whether to give any money back to the original investor. In this game, the initial investor is left with the question; do I trust or not trust?
In a second round of the game investors were given an oxytocin nasal spray. After the spray the investor’s decision to trust others with their money significantly increased.
There were more factors involved in this study, mainly dealing with the breaking of trust. After many rounds, investors were told that whenever they gave money away they were more likely to lose money. The people who received doses of oxytocin continued to spend regardless of knowing that they were more likely to lose what they were given. The oxytocin spray gave investors a larger inclination to trust other human beings.
It’s not easy working with kids and autism makes it more difficult. Many of these children have different triggers that can set them off; some hate being touched, others need things told to them in a very concrete and direct way. Sarah is no different. The one thing that sets Sarah off is trust.
One afternoon a few weeks after her attempted suicide I was driving her home. We just left school in downtown Riverside and were crawling on 14th street towards the 91 West.
Sarah spoke first, “Do you have my fuego Takis?”
“My Takis. You said if I didn’t cause any problems with Tommy in the morning for two weeks you would get me Takis. It’s been two weeks since you told me that.”
“Oh, right.” I completely forgot. When I told her that I figured it would make her happy for a day and then she would forget about it. That’s one of the many tactics my mom used on me growing up, but then again, I wasn’t autistic. “Well, I can get you some tomorrow. I just gotta check with the school that it’s okay.”
“So you’re not getting me Takis when you said you would?” She hit her head a couple of times on the window. I merged on to the freeway; a three car fender bender up ahead had the left lane shut down. “You’re not trustworthy,” Sarah said.
We didn’t talk the rest of the drive home. The next day I brought her the bag of Takis. For three more days I only got one-word answers or nothing from her.
Since Brendan told Sarah that he loved her he hasn’t asked how her day was or told her that she looks pretty or even uttered those three words again, but Sarah keeps telling me how in love they are. She looks past Brendan’s unwillingness to even talk to her just because he touched her and said, “I love you.” She trusts him.
Galactopoiesis is the name given for the maintenance of milk production and this is the stage where oxytocin comes in. This unique hormone contracts a smooth muscle layer of band-like cells around the alveoli to squeeze produced milk into the duct system that leads to the nipples.
When the child sucks on the nipple it tells the oxytocin to go to work on producing milk. This response can even be conditioned by the crying of the mother’s baby. The interesting thing about oxytocin is that it doesn’t just stay with the mother. It actually flows out with the milk; this is what causes relaxation and closeness for both the mother and child. It’s what gives oxytocin the nickname, “the Bonding Hormone.”
Oxytocin creates the bond between the two, a bond that some say is the strongest between two people.
Sarah lives with just her father. One afternoon on the drive home she was feeling pretty talkative while the other boys slept in the back. Mostly it was her telling me about what happened in the latest anime episode but that day, in between Otis Redding’s, Stand By Me, 1964, and The Beatles, Norwegian Wood, 1965, she told me about how her mother left her.
“I got grounded last night. I hate my dad’s girlfriend.”
“What did you do?” I looked at her to make sure she wasn’t trying to take her belt off.
“I ran away. Well, I went for a walk.”
“Which one was it?” I asked. We drove past Corona Lakes where the small mountain to the left reads, FISHING, in white rocks.
“I went for a walk to my parent’s old house across the street from Albertsons. The family that moved there still had the birdbath we bought and my neighbors were still there. They let me pet both of their Chihuahuas. We haven’t lived there in a couple of years.” She twisted a lock of her curly brown hair – a tick of hers whenever she got anxious.
“That sucks you got grounded,” I said.
“Yeah. My dad’s girlfriend is a bitch.”
Nothing was spoken for a while and she kept twisting her hair. I broke the silence; “Why did you move?”
“My mom left us. She used to always for just a few days. But she would always come back. One time when I was a baby she left me at her friend’s house. My dad didn’t even know I was over there.” She hit her head with an empty water bottle a couple of times.
We drove down the highway lined with eucalyptus trees towards her house. All I could say was, “I’m sorry.”
In order for a woman to deliver a baby her uterus has to contract repeatedly over a long period of time. These contractions are what pushes the fetus out of the body. The fetus, itself, actually stimulates the cervix and vagina which causes oxytocin to be released into the blood stream. This release of oxytocin enhances the contraction of the uterine walls and forces the baby out of the body.
It was two months after Sarah’s attempted suicide when I was driving her home. Brendan wasn’t in the van. The Shirelles were belting out, Mama Said, 1961; “Mama said there’ll be days like this / There’ll be days like this Mama said.”
Sarah had her black and white composition notebook sitting on her lap that read, “Sarah’s Drawing Diary. Don’t look! (Unless I let you.)” The writing ended with a pink heart that she drew herself.
“Do you want to see the drawing I’m working on?” she asked.
I nodded my head and cringed at the stream of brake lights ahead of me. Sarah opened up the book and flipped through pages filled with drawings of anime infants in Technicolor outfits and huge, oval eyes.
“So you like drawing babies?” I asked.
Sarah didn’t answer. She just kept thumbing from page to page. “Here. Here, this one is my favorite. She pushed the book closer so I could get a better look at the baby holding a rattler with a pacifier in her mouth. “Her name is Akari. Sometimes I make believe that she’s my kid.”
John Bowlby was a psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst who specialized in studying child development. His largest area of research involved ethology and human attachment behavior. He looked at how important the formation of emotional attachment at the infant stage of life contributed to the child’s development emotionally and personally. Bowlby concluded that an abrupt separation in a toddler’s life will lead to negative impacts on the child’s emotional and cognitive life. He believed that, from an evolutionary perspective, human beings have an innate drive to form close, affectionate bonds.
Since Bowlby’s time, his theories have become further proven, including his thoughts on separation from the mother. Studies have shown that in humans early maternal caregiving is associated with the development of the oxytocinergic system. Also, women who reported childhood emotional neglect showed reduced levels of cerebrospinal fluid oxytocin.
The sun was setting behind the Santa Ana mountain range, west of Lake Elsinore. The mountains were scarred black from a forest fire over the summer. It looked more like the surface of the moon. The radio wasn’t on.
“So I don’t think me and Brendan are together.”
“Well, he doesn’t want me ever calling him babe.” She twisted a lock of her brown hair.
We drove past the lake. Water splashed onto the shore and it smelled like dead fish.
“I tried to hold his hand at school today and he wouldn’t let me. I’m pretty sure when he said, ‘I love you’ that one time he didn’t even mean it. He just wanted to calm me down.”
I turned on to Lake Drive. In the back of my mind I was just praying that nothing would happen. That she wouldn’t try to take her belt off. We were only a couple of miles from her house. “I’m sorry to hear that,” was all that I could stammer out.
“Whatever. This just means that I can play the field.”
“That’s one way to look at it. There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”
“Or in a lake,” she said. “You know Arvin who’s in the after school program with me? Well, we’ve been talking a lot. He’s pretty cute.”
We pulled into the neighborhood near her home. All the houses have balconies that look out over the stagnant water.
“You want to listen to any music?” I asked.
She turned the knobs to 60’s on 6 and waited for the song to play.
Abba’s, Dancing Queen, 1976 thundered through the speakers and Sarah sang; “Anybody could be that guy, Night is young and the music’s high, With a bit of rock music everything is fine, You’re in the mood for a dance, And when you get the chance…”
While oxytocin is known for creating feelings of love and bonding it is also being discovered in correlation with autism. More and more studies are beginning to discover that oxytocin may play a key role in the etiology of Autism Spectrum Disorder. They have discovered a link between the deletion of the genomic oxytocin receptor gene found within people with ASD. In other words, the oxytocin system might be involved in the impairment of social interaction and attachment in people with autism.
If autism is inhibiting oxytocin, what does this mean for someone like Sarah, who not only has autism but also suffers from an abrupt detachment from her own mother at a very young age? This might mean the interaction between Brendan and Sarah was true love.
I only know what Sarah tells me and just yesterday as we stopped at a red light on a hill and looked down across Lake Elsinore – the sun already set and little blinking lights from the many docks protruded like fluorescent fingers grabbing at the dead lake water, she told me something new.
“I’m dating Gregory, now.”
“Oh yeah? That’s cool.”
“Yep. He’s cute.”
She told me to have a good weekend as I pulled into her driveway. It had been three months since the incident and it almost felt like it never even happened. She opened the car door and paused in her seat.
“I don’t know if it’s serious with him, though. Who knows?” Sarah picked up her drawing diary and went inside her house.
It’s impossible for me to know whether it was love or oxytocin that convinced her to untighten the pink belt around her neck, but it was what she needed to hear. I might have been asking the wrong question all along. It’s not a matter of whether or not she feels love or if it is just some chemical, but how she has affected the world around her; how she has changed the way others think and feel. That’s love.
The other day I was driving down the 15 south, heading back home to San Diego and passed by a green road sign that read: “Lake Elsinore, Pop. 55,288.” The freeway sprawled ahead of me, only a few cars in sight as I sped up to 80, the windows down. Both sides of the concrete were covered in homes that sat on hills and I could barely make out the lake to the right. From far away the water actually looked blue, boats skimmed across. It was a picture worthy of a billboard.
My iPod was on shuffle and a new song came on. “The Velvet Underground, Pale Blue Eyes.” I said out loud. I picked up the phone and opened up the search browser, “1969,” I said.
Sean Frede is an undergraduate student at UC Riverside.