Sensory Therapy Effective for Many Autistic Children
> 4/29/2008 2:03:41 PM

Considering the endless amount of raw sensory data that enters the human brain every time we walk outside, talk to a friend or turn on the computer, it's amazing that we're able to function coherently. And the physical world is an even more challenging place for hypersensitive autistic individuals. The way they experience sights, sounds and related sensations is affected by the variations occurring within their brains, and these unusual perceptions can make the world they see simultaneously more stimulating and more frightening. They quite literally see, hear and feel things differently. Tastes may be more intense and disturbing, colors more vivid, sounds and textures more abrasive. These unusual sensory attributes are among the most challenging elements of the autism equation, but new studies reveal that a form of individual "occupational" treatment known as sensory integration therapy may be more efficient than traditional approaches. It works by familiarizing them with less extreme forms of the sensations that prove problematic, teaching them to more effectively deal with everyday irritants.

Most people learn to move more efficiently through their daily lives by developing sensory blinders. We teach ourselves to ignore the things that we know to be distracting and inessential. But autistic kids often lack that crucial instinct. Their hypersensitivity to nearly all external stimuli leaves children very easily distracted and makes integration - participation in a standard classroom setting, for example - unusually difficult. At the same time, their sensitivity to social cues and emotional responses is often blunted, making peer interaction more challenging. Many of the irregular symptoms so common to autistic children stem from a frustration with the unusual landscape that unfolds before them each day, the most common of these "acting out" behaviors being repetitive physical movements and non-verbal sounds or a simple reluctance to engage the outside world.

Sensory integration therapy has not been sufficiently vetted by the scientific community, but the most recent study on the subject produced encouraging results. Taking place at an autism summer camp, the study divided its 6-to-12-year-old subject group into children who received this sensory therapy and those who received a more traditional form of fine motor therapy over a period of 6 weeks. (Many autistic children have developmental disabilities that make forms of physical activity like riding a bike or playing a sport more difficult and often require rehabilatory motor skills programs.) In order to avoid biased results, researchers did not tell parents where their children had been assigned. Primary researchers were also blind to group assignments and calculated results with objective behavioral scales at the end of the 6-week period. Both groups showed noticeable improvements, but those seen in the sensory group were more pronounced. This study was small but should provide some encouragement when combined with a statistic noting that 91% of surveyed parents who sought sensory therapy for their autistic children in 2007 found the methods helpful.

A lot of sensory treatment looks like simple play, but it is designed with the autistic temperament in mind. A child averse to touch, for example, may be introduced to different textures starting with a very soft pillow and growing more rigid. The act of playing catch while balancing on a larger ball also proves helpful to many children by engaging multiple senses and forcing them to simultaneously concentrate on more than one stimulus. The kids involved probably won't realize the benefits to be had from this therapy, but it may over time help them to better control their response systems and achieve a more balanced relationship with the world around them even though every moment seems like a sensory overload. This treatment is, in fact, the most popular form of non-traditional therapy for autism, and the more research we perform on the topic the more credibility it will gain with the larger scientific community.

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