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Does sensory therapy work for autism?

U. TEXAS – AUSTIN (US) — A new review concludes that one of the most popular intervention therapies for kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) lacks scientific support.

The researchers looked at 25 major studies on sensory integration therapy (SIT) to see if the current evidence base supports use of this therapy in the education and rehabilitation of children on the autism spectrum.

Their conclusion, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, that research doesn’t support the use of SIT means providers who work with children with ASD will need to reassess their education and treatment strategies.

Many agencies serving children on the autism spectrum are mandated to use research-based, scientifically valid interventions, but several previous surveys indicate SIT remains one of the most common intervention choices. In one study, 99 percent of interviewed occupational therapists reported using it.

“According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, a person has to have severe communication and social deficits as well as restrictive and repetitive behaviors to be diagnosed with ASD,” says University of Texas at Austin professor Mark O’Reilly.

“SIT was proposed as a way to help with these symptoms. Rigorous, methodologically sound studies do not indicate that it helps and, in fact, the majority of studies that were reviewed reported no benefits for children with ASD.”

Because many children on the autism spectrum have abnormal responses to auditory, visual, tactile, and oral stimuli, sensory integration therapy is designed to offer specific forms of sensory stimuli in the appropriate amounts, with the aim of improving how the nervous system processes sensory stimuli.

Therapists who use SIT may have a child with ASD wear a weighted vest, swing, sit on a bouncy ball, or be compressed between pillows, says Russell Lang, lead investigator of the SIT literature review.

“Many researchers have pointed out that SIT may actually lead to an increase in undesirable behavior because it gives children who exhibit unwanted behavior access to fun activities, more attention from therapists, and breaks from less desirable tasks like schoolwork,” says Lang, executive director of Texas State University’s Clinic for Autism Research, Evaluation and Support.

“It also can undermine the effectiveness of research-based behavioral interventions that the therapist is administering at the same time.”

According to experts, the only scientifically valid treatment and intervention for individuals on the autism spectrum is applied behavior analysis. The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Special Education, of which Lang is an alumni, is one of only a few in the nation that trains graduate students in this therapy.

With applied behavior analysis, the therapist teaches children age-appropriate skills and offers systematic, repetitious positive reinforcement for desired behaviors.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics, the premier professional organization for pediatrics, recently issued a policy statement which offers similar cautions regarding a lack of research support for SIT with this population,” O’Reilly says.

The literature review was published in the international journal and was co-authored by scientists from Texas A&M University and additional institutions in the US, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, and The Netherlands.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

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5 Comments

  1. Lisa Gibbs

    Sensory Intervention is a calming therapy, like those of us who chew our finger nails, smoke or drink. All are sensory habits that calm us from anxiety thus diminishing the undesired feeling of anxiety. Why don’t the researchers ask older or adult asd sufferers if sensory input like massage or touch or chewing gum etc help with the sysmptoms that overwhelm the person.

  2. Edward

    No way that would make too much sense, or ask the parent what the child’s choice is when they have down time, with out promps, just their access to the resource box. That would tell a lot of what the child seeks regarding stimuli for sensory issues. And give the child some credit as to the smarts for manipulation on work avoidance, or they can just use the old stand by and soil themselves like some neuro typical children often do in school for avoidance.

  3. Maureen

    Why don’t they ask Temple Grandin what she thinks about this?

  4. John Rowse

    My school has recently invested thousands of $ in a sensory therapy room for our ASD students. This is disturbing information

  5. John Rowse

    My school has recently invested thousands of dollars in a sensory therapy room for our ASD diagnosed students. This information is disturbing

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