A recent study, using a randomised controlled trial design, has provided the first research evidence that sensory integration therapy can provide measurable improvements in daily function in children with autism. Sensory integration is widely used in practice but has previously lacked support from the existing research.
Funded by an Autism Speaks treatment research grant, this small study is the first to use a randomised control design (often seen as the ‘gold standard’ of research designs) to support positive anecdotal reports from parents and educators. The research was carried out by occupational therapists at Philadelphia’s Jefferson School of Health Professions and is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Autism’s symptoms often include difficulty processing sensory information such as textures, sounds, smells, tastes, brightness and movement. These difficulties can make ordinary situations feel overwhelming. As such, they can interfere significantly with daily function and contribute to social or community isolation for some individuals and their families.
Differences with processing, integrating and responding to certain sensory stimuli have been described as one of the features of autism since the disorder was first identified. Studies suggest that between 45 and 96 % of children with ASD demonstrate sensory processing differences, and sensory features including hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input, are now included as one of four possible manifestations of ‘Restricted, Repetitive Patterns of Behavior, Interests, or Activities’ (according to the DSM-V).
Describing the study, lead researcher Roseann Schaaf noted that “the rationale is that by changing how sensations are processed by the brain, we help children with autism make better sense of the information they receive and use it to better participate in everyday tasks”.
The findings of this study will, however, need to be replicated before the efficacy of sensory integration is fully established. The study involved only a small sample size of 32 participants, and future studies will need to follow children for longer periods to see if improvements remain over time.