A new therapy program — involving basic sensory exercises at home using everyday items such as scents, spoons, and sponges — has been shown to produce significant improvements in children with autism, according to a team of University of California-Irvine neurobiologists.
The so-called “environmental enrichment therapy” led to notable gains boys, between the ages of 3 and 12, who were treated with the technique for a six-month period, said the researchers reporting in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.
"Because parents can give their child sensory enrichment using items typically available in their home, this therapy provides a low-cost option for enhancing their child's progress," said Cynthia Woo, an assistant project scientist in neurobiology and behavior who helped conduct the study that identified the program’s benefits.
To test the therapy, Woo and co-researcher Michael Leon divided 28 autistic boys into two groups. For six months, all received standard autism therapy, but half of the group also had daily sensory enrichment exercises.
Parents of the children were given a kit containing household products to increase environmental stimulation, including essential-oil fragrances such as apple, lavender, lemon, and vanilla. The boys smelled four of these scents each day and listened to classical music each evening. Parents also conducted twice-daily sessions of four to seven exercises with their boys involving different combinations of sensory stimuli – touch, temperature, sight, and movement.
After six months of therapy, 42 percent of the children in the enrichment group showed significant improvements in relating to people, having typical emotional responses and listening. That compared to just 7 percent in the standard-care group. Those in the enrichment group also scored higher in cognitive function. About 69 percent of parents in the enrichment group said they saw noticeable improvements in their children, compared with 31 percent of parents in the standard-care group.
"We believe that sensory enrichment can be an effective therapy for the treatment of autism, particularly among children past the toddler stage," said Leon, a professor of neurobiology and behavior with UC-Irvine's Center for Autism Research & Treatment.
"At the same time, we need to know whether we can optimize the treatment, whether there are subgroups of children for whom it's more effective, whether the therapy works for older or younger children, and whether it can be effective on its own."
Leon and Woo are now conducting a second clinical trial that includes girls.
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