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Lang, researchers find popular autism treatment lacking evidence

By Kristina Kenney
University News Service
December 5, 2012

One of the most popular intervention therapies for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) lacks scientific support according to a study published earlier this year by Texas State University Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Russell Lang and an international team of scientists.

The researchers reviewed 25 major studies on sensory integration therapy (SIT) to analyze if the current evidence base supports use of this therapy in the education and rehabilitation of children on the autism spectrum. The study found that research does not support the use of SIT, prompting providers who work with children with ASD to reassess their education and treatment strategies.

“Many researchers have pointed out that SIT may actually lead to an increase in undesirable behavior because it gives children who exhibit unwanted behavior access to fun activities, more attention from therapists and breaks from less desirable tasks like schoolwork,” said Lang, who is also the executive director of Texas State’s Clinic for Autism Research, Evaluation and Support. “It also can undermine the effectiveness of research-based behavioral interventions that the therapist is administering at the same time.”

Many agencies serving children on the autism spectrum are mandated to use research-based, scientifically valid interventions, but several previous surveys indicate SIT remains one of the most common intervention choices.

“According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a person has to have severe communication and social deficits as well as restrictive and repetitive behaviors to be diagnosed with ASD,” said Mark O’Reilly, a member of the research team and interim chair of the College of Education’s Department of Special Education at the University of Texas. “SIT was proposed as a way to help with these symptoms. Rigorous, methodologically sound studies do not indicate that it helps and, in fact, the majority of studies that were reviewed reported no benefits for children with ASD.”

Because many children on the autism spectrum have abnormal responses to auditory, visual, tactile and oral stimuli, sensory integration therapy is designed to offer specific forms of sensory stimuli in the appropriate amounts, with the aim of improving how the nervous system processes sensory stimuli, Lang said.

According to experts, the only scientifically valid treatment and intervention for individuals on the autism spectrum is applied behavior analysis, where the therapist teaches children age-appropriate skills and offers systematic, repetitious positive reinforcement for desired behaviors.

The study, Sensory integration therapy for autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review, was published in the international journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders and was co-authored by scientists from the U.S., Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

For more information about this research, please contact Russell Lang at rl30@txstate.edu.