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.
A team of researchers from Cambridge University have demonstrated that whereas synaesthesia only occurred in 7.2% of typical individuals, it occurred in 18.9% of people with autism.
Synaesthesia describes the experience of a ‘mixing of the senses’, for example, seeing colours when you hear sounds, or reporting that musical notes evoke different tastes. Autism is diagnosed when a person struggles with social relationships and communication, and shows unusually narrow interests and resistance to change.
At the level of the brain, synaesthesia involves atypical connections between brain areas that are not usually wired together (so that a sensation in one channel automatically triggers a perception in another). Autism has also been postulated to involve over-connectivity of neurons (so that the person over-focuses on small details but struggles to keep track of the big picture).
Read more about this research here.
New research, funded by Autism Speaks, indicates that children with autism who are minimally verbal can learn to speak later than previously thought, and iPads are playing an increasing role in making that happen.
A researcher at Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education and Human Development has demonstrated that using speech-generating devices to encourage children aged between 5 and 8 to develop talking skills resulted in considerably more spoken words compared to some other interventions. Every child in the study learned some new spoken words and several children learned to produce short sentences as they moved through the training.
Results from the research will be available in Spring 2014 and the NIH study will continue into Spring 2017. More information is available at Kidtalk.org.
The findings of a recent study are challenging the prevailing notion in the field that the brains of people with autism may be lacking in neural connections. Autism spectrum disorder is a neuro-developmental condition affecting an estimated 1 in 88 children.
The research demonstrates that the brains of children with autism actually show more connections than the brains of typically developing children. Additionally, the brains of individuals with the most significant social symptoms are also the most hyper-connected. The researchers hope the findings could lead to new treatment strategies and new ways to detect autism early.
Read more about this study.
Parents and teachers can often feel overwhelmed when considering which approaches to use to support young people with autism. There are numerous intervention strategies and approaches advocated within the literature. Research Autism list a bewildering 978 different interventions which are used in practice. The NAS lists strategies and approaches ranging from visual supports and social stories to more ‘complete’ packages like TEACCH.
However, the evidence base for many of the approaches that are widely used is not entirely convincing. Many experts in the field would agree that no single approach can be useful for all individuals with autism, and that no approach is likely to be suitable even for the same individual over time. So just how do parents and professionals know that they are ‘doing the right thing’?
A research study published in November 2012 suggests that more evidence is urgently needed to support the use of autism interventions. The report, published in the journal Pediatrics, and comissioned by the RAND corporation concludes that the evidence for the efficacy of the most widely used interventions ranges from moderate to insufficient.
The study indicates that there is moderate evidence that Auditory Integration Training is not effective, and that there is insufficient evidence regarding the efficacy of augmentative and alternative communication devices. Also, the expert panel was unable to reach consensus about the evidence for Sensory Integration or Deep Pressure Brushing.
The researchers agreed that there was enough evidence to endorse the following approaches:
The study also concludes that what is needed is higher quality, longitudinal research studies which are large enough to be able to tease out important details such as which interventions are best suited to different types of difficulties and also able to distinguish the effects of different components of interventions.
Knowing where to turn for help and advice when supporting a young person with autism can be very tough. I’ve put together this list of websites that may serve as a useful starting point for signposting you in the right direction. With so much information available on the internet often it’s difficult, especially at first, to know which information is reliable and trustworthy.
The National Autistic Society is a wondeful resource. The main UK charity for autism. You’ll find this to be one of the most reliable sites around. Also lists the NAS schools around the UK.
Another favourite of mine is Research Autism. The leading organisation in the UK for all of the latest research projects and findings connected to autism. Research Autism also has the backing of the NAS.
The Autism Education Trust is well worth a read for education professionals as well as for carers. A really useful section on good practice and well designed with good video clips too.
Some other sources of useful information are:
The Autism Society of America
The Autism Blog
The Autism Directory
Looking Up Autism
I hope you find these links useful. Keep checking back here for practical tips and advice for supporting children with autism.
If you know of other sites that you think should be included here please feel free to contact me.
I was recently watching Temple Grandin at the annual TED conference. In the talk, she uses the lens of her own autism to talk about how she ‘thinks in pictures’. Take a look at the clip here.
In it she talks about how her autism influences the way she thinks – allowing her to pick out the small details in situations often before she has been able to process the ‘whole’.
It’s really interesting to listen to Temple describing ‘visual thinkers’, ‘pattern thinkers’, and ‘verbal thinkers’ and how these principles might apply in my professional practice.
The idea of different types or styles of thinking in autism is closely connected to the idea of multiple intelligences in autism. I write more about this here.