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Study Finds Sensory Therapy Has Merit For Kids With Autism

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A therapy that uses play to teach children with autism to tolerate sound, touch and other potentially-challenging sensory experiences can be beneficial, new research suggests.

The occupational therapy technique known as sensory integration is used in practice, but has not been widely tested.

Now a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders suggests that the approach can reap meaningful gains in significantly less time than the 40 hours per week often recommended for traditional behavior therapy.

For the study, researchers looked at 32 children with autism ages 4 to 8. Parents identified goals for the kids who were randomly assigned to two groups, with 17 children receiving three hour-long sessions of the sensory therapy weekly for 10 weeks in addition to any existing treatment they already participated in. The other kids simply continued with their usual care including medications and behavior therapy.

Occupational therapists worked with the kids receiving the sensory integration therapy to address specific goals like learning to play with a peer for 10 minutes or taking a shower without feeling agitated. In each instance, the therapist would assess the child’s sensory experience and, to address the shower issue, for example, might use a ball pit to teach the child to tolerate the feel of water hitting their skin.

“By changing how sensations are processed and integrated by the brain we help children with autism make better sense of the information they receive and therefore use it to better to participate in everyday tasks,” said Roseann Schaaf, an occupational therapist and neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia who led the study.

After the therapy sessions concluded, both groups of kids were given standardized assessments. Those who participated in the sensory integration therapy scored higher on the “goal attainment” scale and needed less help from their parents with self care and socialization as compared to children in the standard care group, the researchers said.

The findings suggest that sensory integration therapy could be a beneficial component to treating autism alongside other educational, behavioral and medical services, Schaaf and her colleagues said. But, they indicated that their conclusions need to be replicated in a larger study and should be viewed cautiously until then.

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Comments (8 Responses)

  1. Jon K. Evans says:

    My Doctor was on the right track!

  2. Dr. Edward Gooze says:

    Interesting to see someone doing research on the efficacy of Sensory Integration Therapy [SIT]. It is a rare occurance. The outcomes from the study’s SIT elements were compared to a “standard care group.” What was the nature and goals for the “standard care group. Recall that Autism exists on a spectrum and the Sensory Integration [desensitization] needs will depend on where each participant is on that spectrum. Was this variable addressed in creating so-called matched groups?

    It is nice to see some research attempts on SIT applications with children with ASDs. A ton more needs to be done to determine where SIT fits into a given child’s program. Some of the new concepts of Epigenetics and Neuroplasticity need to be applied to the applications of SIT and other seeming interventions. – ECG

  3. Jacqueline Scolaro says:

    How do these findings relate to adults on the spectrum?

  4. Leticia Velasquez says:

    I hope this research will help convince the Special Education Director at my daughter’s school to include a sensory diet in her IEP. She said at the last PPT that this was not proven to work.

  5. fairlady68 says:

    I agree with Jacqueline…what strategies are there for ADULTS with these sensory issues? The older I get the harder it is to tolerate things like taking a shower, drying myself, noises I hear at work, etc.

  6. joe gerardi says:

    this is not new to those in the fragile x syndrome community—
    it was widely recommended and used 20 years ago—
    since my son is 28 now i don’t know the recent status but
    one could check the NFX website—–

  7. soricobob says:

    Sorry, but most of us have known this for decades. Why don’t well-meaning people do research on the unknown!

  8. Dr. Roseann Schaaf, Study Lead investigator says:

    It’s great to see that our study generated interst from many stakeholders. To Dr. Gooze’s comment regarding whether goals were comparable between groups, we describe the types of goals for each group in the full article. In summary, the types of goals are comparable between the groups with self-care goals being the highest area identified by parents . Next were goals about the child’s ability to play (with others and alone) and sit during activities such as dinner, family time, or synagogue. Second, in regard to matching the groups on autism severity, we match the groups by stratifying on mental age (cognitive level) and autism severity. As it turned out, most of our sample (both groups) were in the high severity, high IQ strata – and matched on autism severity and cognitive level.
    Regarding the comments about doing this type of research to address the needs of adults with ASD, I totally agree. This will be a good next step! We do know that difficulty processing and integrating sensory information is an important factor that impacts adult’s with ASD participation in activities including social activities, work and leisure activities.
    Finally, for soricobob – one important reason for studying occupational therapy using sensory integration is so we can know if it is effective, for whom and what phenotypic characteristics best respond. There is still so much work to be done. One hopeful result of this study is that insurance companies and school districts will use this data to support these services for individual’s with autism who can benifit from them and thus, enhance their ability to participate in their everyday activities.

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