A simple, home-based therapy that relies on sensory stimulation could make a world of difference for kids with autism, a new study suggests. Researchers say that children who participated in the therapy known as environmental enrichment in addition to standard treatments like applied behavior analysis showed significantly more improvement in social and cognitive skills as compared to kids with autism who only had the traditional treatment.
In a small study being published this week in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, researchers looked at 28 boys with autism ages 3 to 12, all of whom received standard behavior therapy. In addition, 13 of the boys participated in environmental enrichment exercises each day during the six-month study period.
The supplemental therapy — which was administered by parents in the home — used everyday objects like hot and cold water, aluminum foil, sandpaper, scented oils and a piggy bank to expose children to various stimuli during two, 15 to 30-minute sessions daily. What’s more, sensory activities were incorporated in other areas of the boys’ daily lives. The kids listened to classical music and, at night, a scented cotton ball was placed in their pillowcases so that they would be exposed to a fragrance while they slept, for example.
After six months, researchers from the University of California, Irvine found that children who participated in environmental enrichment were six times more likely to have significant improvement in relating to people as well as sights and sounds. They also made greater strides in cognitive functioning.
Meanwhile, parents were twice as likely to report improvement in their child’s overall autism symptoms when they had received both therapies.
“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, a study co-author and a project scientist at the University of California, Irvine.
While further study is needed, the researchers said the approach could be particularly valuable for kids who are older. Most autism therapies are effective when started at very young ages, but the current study showed progress for boys up to age 12.