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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

'Sensory-Focused' Autism Therapy Shows Early Promise

In small study, parents used variety of methods to stimulate boys' senses
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Mary Brophy Marcus

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, June 5 (HealthDay News) -- Smelling essential oils, walking across textured surfaces, immersing hands in warm water -- these are just some of the therapeutic experiences that boys with autism had while participating in a small new study.

The scientists wanted to learn how "sensory-motor" therapy compared to traditional behavioral therapy methods in boys with autism.

Twenty-eight boys aged 3 to 12 and their parents participated in the six-month-long study, published online May 20 in Behavioral Neuroscience. The boys were split into two groups. Both groups of children participated in daily behavioral therapy, but 13 of the boys also received environmental enrichment, another term for sensory-motor therapy.

The environmental enrichment therapy had a significant positive effect on these children with autism, the study authors said.

"What we've done here for the first time is give humans a sensory-enriched environment and found out that a neurological disorder -- autism -- responds favorably. We saw a 600 percent greater likelihood of having a positive clinical outcome in individuals that had enriched environments compared to those receiving the standard care that children have been receiving for autism up to this point," said study author Michael Leon, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Center for Autism Research and Treatment at the University of California, Irvine.

However, an autism expert who wasn't part of the study cautioned that other sensory-based therapies showing early promise haven't proven effective so far.

For the new study, parents of the children in the sensory enrichment group were given a kit that contained a broad range of materials aimed at stimulating their child's senses of smell, temperature, texture, sight and movement. Vials of essential oils scented of apple, lavender, sweet orange and vanilla, were among the items. Squares of different textured materials included smooth foam, hardwood flooring, sponges, felt and sandpaper.

The children were also given the opportunity to play with objects: beads, a small piggy bank with plastic coins, pictures of famous art, a can of Play-Doh, a bowl to hold warm or cool water and more.

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