Sensory Enrichment an Alternative to Behavioral Therapy for Treating Autism
New research published by the American Psychological Association in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience documents the first successful experiment with humans using a new type of sensory treatment for boys with autism. Called sensory-motor or environmental enrichment, the treatment gradually introduced young boys with autism to new tactile and olfactory sensations. Researchers found marked improvement in boys treated with the sensory enrichment therapy compared to boys undergoing a standard course of behavioral therapy.
Sensory motor treatment is based on the premise that autistic people have difficulties with over-stimulation and sensory integration. Some of the most pronounced problems for autistic people involve sensitivity to smell and touch, and as such, the researchers decided to focus their treatment on those two senses.
The study drew upon a lengthy history of research on environmental enrichment for animals, which had documented the neurological implications of the treatment. The research team hypothesized that the treatment would also have beneficial effects in autistic human children.
Researchers followed two groups of autistic boys, aged three to 12. One group participated in sensory enrichment and the other followed a course of behavioral therapy. The sensory enrichment group members received a kit containing things like essential oil fragrances and squares of various materials. Parents of children in this group were instructed to conduct two sessions daily of four to seven exercises to introduce different combinations of stimuli to their children.
This therapy continued for six months, after which 42% of children in the enrichment group improved significantly. There were better able to relate to people and respond to visual and auditory stimuli. Of children in the behavioral therapy group, only 7% showed improvement. Furthermore, 69% of parents of children in the sensory therapy group reported improvements in their child’s autism symptoms, compared with only 31% in the control group.
Study co-author Cynthia C. Woo, PhD explained that one reason that sensory enrichment therapy is important is “Because parents can give their child sensory enrichment using items typically available in their home.” As such, it “provides a low-cost option for enhancing their child’s progress.” With the success of this initial study, the research team is now conducting a larger clinical trial that includes girls. Their next target will be testing environmental sensory therapy independent of other treatments.