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.

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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.