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Research Review: Social motivation and oxytocin in autism – implications for joint attention development and intervention


  • Conflicts of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


Katherine K. M. Stavropoulos, Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, USA; Email:


Background and scope

The social motivation hypothesis (SMH) suggests that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are less intrinsically rewarded by social stimuli than their neurotypical peers. This difference in social motivation has been posited as a factor contributing to social deficits in ASD. Social motivation is thought to involve the neuropeptide oxytocin. Here, we review the evidence for oxytocin effects in ASD, and discuss its potential role in one important social cognitive behavior.


Systematic searches were conducted using the PsychINFO and MEDLINE databases and the search terms ‘oxytocin’ and ‘autism’; the same databases were used for separate searches for ‘joint attention’, ‘intervention’, and ‘autism’, using the same inclusion criteria as an earlier 2011 review but updating it for the period 2010 to October 2012.


Several studies suggest that giving oxytocin to both individuals with ASD and neurotypical individuals can enhance performance on social cognitive tasks. Studies that have attempted to intervene in joint attention in ASD suggest that social motivation may be a particular obstacle to lasting effects.


The review of the evidence for the SMH suggests a potential role for oxytocin in social motivation deficits in ASD. Because of its importance for later communicative and social development, the focus here is on implications of oxytocin and social motivation in the development of and interventions in joint attention. Joint attention is a central impairment in ASD, and as a result is the focus of several behavioral interventions. In describing this previous research on joint attention interventions in ASD, we pay particular attention to problems encountered in such studies, and propose ways that oxytocin may facilitate behavioral intervention in this area. For future research, integrating behavioral and pharmacological interventions (oxytocin administration) would be a worthwhile experimental direction to improve understanding of the role of oxytocin in ASD and help optimize outcomes for children with ASD.