'Sensory-Focused' Autism Therapy Shows Early Promise
In small study, parents used variety of methods to stimulate boys' senses
WebMD News Archive
The boys in the enrichment group also improved on scores for so-called cognitive function -- which involves thinking and reasoning skills -- while the standard care group had a decrease in their average scores. And improvement in overall autism symptoms was reported by two-thirds of parents with children in the enrichment group compared to one-third of parents with kids in the standard care group.
"We were surprised at how well the children responded to this. And we were appropriately skeptical at the start of the study," Leon said.
Another positive point, Leon noted, is that while standard behavioral therapy is more effective the earlier a child receives it, the sensory enrichment therapy appears to be effective even in older children.
Autism affects about 1 in 88 children, according to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's one of a group of serious developmental conditions that fall under the term "autism spectrum disorders." Symptoms can vary widely, but kids with autism generally have difficulty communicating and interacting with others.
"You really have to start these other treatments early. The median age at which autism is diagnosed in this country is 5 years old, but even if they're diagnosed early, it often takes many months before they are finally in treatment, sometimes up to a year," Leon said, adding that the cost can tally up to as much as $100,000 annually.
Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., pointed out that while the study suggests that a novel and relatively simple form of environmental enrichment performed at home twice daily for 30 minutes or less can lead to significant improvement in children with autism, it's too soon to draw such conclusions.
"Parents and professionals should know that all other treatment approaches focusing on sensory stimulation, despite promising initial reports, have not proven to be effective thus far in helping children with autism," Adesman said.
He added that while there was a "control group," there was no "blinding" with respect to treatment status (meaning it was obvious who was and who wasn't receiving the new therapy). "It is possible that the group of kids who improved with the sensory stimulation may have simply benefited from placebo effects and/or other nonspecific benefits from increased parent-child interaction," Adesman explained.
"Despite the limitations of the research study's design, environmental enrichment focusing on an autistic child's senses of smell and touch most definitely deserves further study as a relatively simple and affordable treatment," Adesman said.
Study author Leon also said more research is needed, but noted that environmental enrichment is a low-cost, at-home therapy option for parents. "It's quite feasible for parents to engage with their children and improve the probability of a clinically significant improvement in their autism symptoms," he said.