'Sensory-Focused' Autism Therapy Shows Early Promise
In small study, parents used variety of methods to stimulate boys' senses
The researchers asked parents to conduct two therapy sessions a day with their child, and to run four to seven different exercises during each session that involved different combinations of the items in the kit. Sessions ranged from 15 to 30 minutes. The children also listened to classical music once a day.
As the six-month period progressed, parents were encouraged to offer more complex enrichment exercises. For example, a child would be given the chance to select a textured square and in addition to feeling it would be encouraged to match it to another square of the same material.
By the end of the six months, Leon said the enrichment group children had significantly improved compared to the children who received standard therapy alone. He said 42 percent of the boys in the enrichment group improved in their ability to relate to other people and in their ability to respond to sights and sounds, compared with 7 percent of the standard care group.
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.