The Effectiveness of Sensory-Focused Interventions for Children with ASD
What does research say about therapies focused on sensory aspects of autism?
One of the main characteristics for diagnosing someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the person shows restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, or activities. One common example of this is people who have unusual sensory interests or unusual responses to sensory information in their environment. These are also called sensory challenges. Sensory information can mean smell, texture, pressure, temperature, taste, light, movement, and sound. It includes anything that activates your senses!
What are the types of sensory challenges?
There are two main types of sensory challenges seen in people with ASD:
- Hyperresponsiveness: an extreme response to a particular sensory input, which can be either very strong interest or very strong dislike
Examples: a child really likes the way the fan blades look when they spin around or a child really hates the hum of florescent lights
- Hyporesponsiveness: a lack of response to certain stimuli
Examples: a child does not seem to notice when they bang their head or when they are touching something hot
Although it is hard to measure, current estimates say 42-88% of people with ASD have an impairment related to their sensory challenge. In other words, for a significant number of people with ASD, having an extreme over-reaction or under-reaction to sensory information negatively affects their daily life.
Sensory challenges may affect the way that a child interacts with their environment, such as the way they behave in school and their ability to participate in activities and social situations. Due to this impact, there are therapies designed to focus on a child’s sensory reactions. The primary goal is to improve the way a child interacts with their environment by exposing them to sensory experiences (such as sounds, pressure, textures, etc.). These therapies are becoming increasingly popular; therefore, there is a need for research to examine if they actually work. The study discussed below was a summary of the current research.
What did the study find?
The current review looked at twenty-four different studies which all tested a type of sensory-focused therapy. The studies included a wide variety of sensory therapies such as: music-based therapy, massage-based therapy, swinging and trampoline exercises, filtering sound activities, and using weighted blankets. As a whole, sensory-therapies did not show lasting results. In some studies there were some short-term improvements in children’s sensory challenges and their symptoms of ASD; however, these improvements did not last for longer than six months. In addition, many studies were lacking strong science. For example, some only tested a small number of children, some had a high risk of bias, others did very little follow-up, and others were not consistent in how the therapy was given. Further research is needed before we can say that these types of therapies work.
What does this mean for my child?
Therapists should be using strategies and techniques that are supported by research and proven to show positive changes. This review shows that sensory-focused therapy for children with ASD still need more research before we know if it is effective. There was some evidence that children make improvements for a few months, but there was no indication that the improvements lasted over time. In addition, there was a lack in the quality of the current research.
Each child is different, and it is important to consider a child’s individual needs and goals when deciding which therapy to use. However, therapists should always use scientific research to help guide their clinical decisions, and there are many therapy types with evidence showing they do make long-term improvements (many are summarized in our other blog posts). Be sure to think critically about the therapy your child is receiving and ask your therapist if the techniques they are using with your child have been shown to work in research studies.
Weitlauf A.S., Sathe N., McPheeters M. L., Warren Z. E. (2017). Interventions Targeting Sensory Challenges in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics 139(9) e20170347.