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Low-Cost Autism Therapy Shows Promise


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A simple, home-based therapy that relies on sensory stimulation could make a world of difference for kids with autism, a new study suggests.

Researchers say that children who participated in the therapy known as environmental enrichment in addition to standard treatments like applied behavior analysis showed significantly more improvement in social and cognitive skills as compared to kids with autism who only had the traditional treatment.

In a small study being published this week in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, researchers looked at 28 boys with autism ages 3 to 12, all of whom received standard behavior therapy. In addition, 13 of the boys participated in environmental enrichment exercises each day during the six-month study period.

The supplemental therapy — which was administered by parents in the home — used everyday objects like hot and cold water, aluminum foil, sandpaper, scented oils and a piggy bank to expose children to various stimuli during two, 15 to 30-minute sessions daily. What’s more, sensory activities were incorporated in other areas of the boys’ daily lives. The kids listened to classical music and, at night, a scented cotton ball was placed in their pillowcases so that they would be exposed to a fragrance while they slept, for example.

After six months, researchers from the University of California, Irvine found that children who participated in environmental enrichment were six times more likely to have significant improvement in relating to people as well as sights and sounds. They also made greater strides in cognitive functioning.

Meanwhile, parents were twice as likely to report improvement in their child’s overall autism symptoms when they had received both therapies.

“Because parents can give their child sensory enrichment using items typically available in their home, this therapy provides a low-cost option for enhancing their child’s progress,” said Cynthia Woo, a study co-author and a project scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

While further study is needed, the researchers said the approach could be particularly valuable for kids who are older. Most autism therapies are effective when started at very young ages, but the current study showed progress for boys up to age 12.

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Comments (24 Responses)

  1. Dee says:

    This is most likely simply reinforcement of interaction with parents. If parents engage with their children and provide them with positive reinforcement, children will learn. This is part of a good ABA / NET / VB program. Why do people have to give it all these new names?

  2. bgolden says:

    I wish it were this simple. I don’t think any amount of sensory items is going to be make a child social!!

  3. Rebecca says:

    Please post a link to the study.

  4. Emily says:

    UCI has a fantastic facility and are doing great work in the field of autism research.

  5. Carmen Allen says:

    I love how they always stick “applied behavior analysis” (ABA) which is nothing more than “experimental analysis” and even the Agency for Healthcare and Research Quality explains the potential for “HARM”. Anything to have ABA looked at in a good way, instead of the dehumanizing therapy that it is and the harm it has caused so many children on the spectrum. University of California has a vested interested in continuing to push ABA since this is where the father of ABA was located for years. And the “traditional therapy” has always been ABA and look what that has gotten the children and adults with autism – not many are employed. Why can’t they just admit what most of us already know and their own research shows- ABA DOES NOT WORK FOR THE MAJORITY OF THOSE WITH AUTISM and HAS POTENTIAL FOR HARM. STOP wasting our hard earned tax dollars on making us think it’s okay to use dehumanizing therapy on human beings with autism.

  6. Helen M says:

    This is old news. The National Association for Child Development has been using sensory strategies for autism for 30 years, with stunning results. ABA only changes behavior. Sensory strategies change the brain.

  7. Alyssa says:

    Reminds me of the brushing therapy we used to use for my son years ago. We didn’t see any results at first, but after about a month or so it just “clicked” and there was a jump in his verbal and interactive skills. His OT at the time said that it doesn’t work for everyone but for kids who need the sensory input it can make a huge difference. At least this is pain/risk free…the worse that would happen is that a kid wouldn’t be able to take that much stimulus and mom and dad would either have to cut back or stop entirely.

    BTW, point of information, my son has autism and was about four or five when we started with this, though we continued with it for several years.

  8. Mari says:

    I really appreciate how you publish information on current research. It would be even more helpful if you included a citation for the actual article so people could use your article to link to the journal to find out more information!

  9. maryann coffman says:

    What do you know about Jean Genet’s treatment for autism and do you have any knowledge of effectiveness for adults(37)? At this point, all I know is that Cd’s are involved at night , one of which I believe is environmental in nature.

  10. Ted Mauro says:

    Could you please share name of journal article and authors? Thank you

  11. Betsy Cohick says:


    As a parent of an adult with severe autism and also an occupational therapist that works in preschool level autism support classrooms I have seen wonderful progress using an ABA based program. I believe sensory strategies are just one of the many tools available to help all of us not just individuals with autism. Since all of us have individual needs I think it is best to look at the many interventions out there and choose interventions that may work for each individual’s needs. As a parent you have to be careful to make sure your choices are safe, not a scam (I’ve seen parents spend a lot of money of things that just don’t seem to make sense), and that may help the problem. It is always good to have good research back up your intervention.

    Treatment has to be individualized. For example I would not be able to use the scented cotton ball idea mentioned above for my son because my son has Pica too (eats things he isn’t supposed to) and it would become a choking risk for him. I could give him a warm bath before bedtime, put nice smelling lotion on his face and use a weighted blanket to help him sleep better. Another child could use this cotton ball idea successfully. I think it is important to be open to new ideas because you may be able to use the idea as presented or it may help you brainstorm new ideas for you situation.


  12. Rosemary Marcus says:

    I was disappointed that your article did not mention that occupational therapists have recognized and used sensory integration/sensory processing techniques for 50 years with children (and adults) with autism and other disabilities. Meeting the needs of a disorganized nervous system has been researched extensively in the occupational therapy community. Dr. A. Jean Ayres is considered one of the founders of sensory treatment based on her work in the 1960s. My daughter is a Nationally Board Certified Behaviorial Specialist with a Masters Degree in ABA working at the New England Center for Children; she is starting to listen to me regarding the need to meet the sensory needs of persons on the autism spectrum.

  13. Christina says:

    I’m really excited to read this! We’ve been unable to afford ABA, or any other therapy, for (gulp) about 5 years now! I’m excited to have some ideas for ways to enhance my son’s learning at home, especially since it’s fairly simple (I have ADD and 2 other boys) and relatively inexpensive. I’ll be looking for more info.

  14. Erin Campbell says:

    The way our bodies respond to sensations underlies all our interactions with people as well as the environment. Our responses to sensation dramatically affect our ability to make sense of the world around us (i.e., ability to learn). As a pediatric Occupational Therapist with specialized training in sensory processing I have helped to educate many family’s about the specific sensory needs of their child. Because sensations can organize or DIS-organize a person, I encourage parents to seek education and guidance from a specially trained OT who knows their child. Requesting from the OT a sensory-diet that takes into account the daily routine, activities and resources of the family is critical to success.

  15. Micheal Hodge says:

    In the above article “Low-Cost Autism Therapy shows promise.” There is mentioned a home based therapy but I couldn’t find a name or title for this therapy. I would be grateful for any help you could offer.
    Ms. M. Hodge

  16. Jacqueline Scolaro says:

    This sounds awesome and I work with adults on the spectrum and have long suspected that we could help them by increasing their sensory experiences.

  17. ignatius says:

    Reading the posted comments, I saw an expected misunderstanding in the words of readers of the articles: this research hasn’t found any advantages of applying sensory integration techniques; sensory stimulation and environment enrichment ARE NOT sensory integration techniques per se, but something much more simple than those. SI therapy was found ineffective for autism in numerous high-quality studies in the most recent years. Environment enrichment, on the other hand, is a simple approach used in numerous cases in special education – so it can be useful at home as well.
    Several parents are against ABA (the scaffold of all therapeutic programs for autism) and/or for sensory diet and similar approaches – but this is clearly a matter of low quality information they have, as well as a result of treatments of their child by bad therapists… By the way, the University of California in Irvine is NOT the University where Lovaas, the father of (old-fashioned) ABA worked, as one parent commented.

  18. Jessica says:

    This therapy is from Mendability I have my son doing the exercises, and I have noticed a difference in him, He sits still longer, pays attention, makes more eye contact, has started using his own words (he is echolalic). It is not very expensive at all, and they contact you and see how things are going, as well as answering any questions you have very quickly. The study at the school is just where they do their testing.

  19. Julia Burn says:

    This is taken from the original Delacato Therapy which has been around since 1960’s and has helped hundreds of autistic children and adults worldwide.

    David Delacato still carries on his father Carl Delacato’s work today and lives in Philadelphia but holds clinics in Europe .

  20. Julia Burn says:

    should read and holds clinics in Europe as well as in USA.

    This therapy has helped my daughter tremendously

  21. Bobbie* says:

    Nice there was a link posted. Too bad they have to charge for the information. :o(*

  22. Dana says:

    my answer to Carmen Allen – You are absolutely correct.
    in his The ME Book – lovaas said NOT to use professionals.
    but then he changed his mind saying that one must have certification.
    This way, ABA became expensive, making parents think it is worthwhile.
    the 47% success he claimed in his 1987 study cannot be true.
    WHY didn’t he show these “recovered” kids to the public?

  23. Bessy says:

    The study said enriched environments with sensations. This is NOT SENSORY INTEGRATION THERAPY. The technique “enriched environment” is related to ABA therapy not sensory integration. It seems as though people, along with the professionals, have no clue as to what ABA therapy is and they don’t even understand what sensory integration therapy is (and some of them are practicing SI therapists). I agree that it is a lack of information, or the deliberate pushing of inaccurate information. For instance, many parents use ABA therapy (under a packaged title) and still criticize it at the same.

    If smelling cotton balls, looking at bright lights, and jumping on trampolines could change the brains then our brains are constantly being changed. I think it is more practical for us to see real behavioral/physical changes.

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