The social skills of young children with autism improved after they used a simple nasal spray, scientists said yesterday.

Oxytocin, the so-called cuddle chemical released during lovemaking, labour and even when hugging a teddy bear, helped youngsters aged three to eight.

The finding paves the way for the first medicine that could ease the difficulty many autistic children have in interacting.

It is estimated approximately 40, 000 people in New Zealand have autism.

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Symptoms include avoiding eye contact, preferring to play alone, struggling to read other people's emotions and 'talking at' them rather than joining a conversation.

Previous research showed boosting oxytocin levels helped autistic adults and teenagers.

The new study looked at whether younger children also benefit, because early treatment should be the most useful.

Some 31 autistic children used the hormone spray twice a day for five weeks. A placebo was used for another five weeks.

The spray improved the social skills of a third of the children, but had no effect on repetitive behaviour, another symptom.

Writing in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researcher Adam Guastella, of the University of Sydney in Australia, said: "It's the first time a medicine has ever been shown to improve social interaction."

- Daily Mail