January 15, 2010

Autism study to evaluate sensory integration therapy

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Seth Link models a cap of electrodes to measure brain waves in Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Psychophysiology Lab.

Autism study to evaluate sensory integration therapy

Vanderbilt University researchers have received a two-year federal stimulus grant to evaluate sensory integration therapy, a widely used but controversial method for improving communication skills in children with autism.

Children with autism have difficulty taking in and integrating sensory information from the outside world, particularly auditory information.

The suppression or misinterpretation of auditory information can prevent the development of language.

Sensory integration therapy, or SIT, uses “desensitization” techniques such as joint massage and tactile brushing to overcome this difficulty. But SIT has never been thoroughly evaluated scientifically.

Supported by a two-year, $670,000 grant from the National Institute on

Stephen Camarata, Ph.D.

Stephen Camarata, Ph.D.

Mark Wallace, Ph.D.

Mark Wallace, Ph.D.

Because learning how to communicate and interact with others is such a challenge for children with autism, “we want to make sure their valuable learning time is used in the most effective way possible,” said Camarata, an autism treatment researcher at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences.

Camarata and Wallace are professors of Hearing and Speech Sciences and investigators in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.

They will look for changes in behavior and social performance and in brain waves as measured by a “cap” of electrodes worn on the scalp.
The findings from this study will be used to plan a larger clinical trial.

The brain's ability to process and integrate information coming in from the eyes, ears and other senses develops as early as infancy, said Wallace, a nationally known expert on sensory processing who directs the Vanderbilt Brain Institute.

“If that (ability) is compromised during that early developmental period, you will never be able to really gain full function in these systems,” he said.

It is not known whether children with autism have a “sensory processing deficit” or whether higher cognitive functions — which develop later — are involved.

The measurement of brain waves may help answer that question, Wallace said.

Either way, “we've really got to help children become socially oriented in … our society,” Camarata said. “If you don't do that, at some point you've got pretty much a socially isolated, excluded individual.”

That's why it's important to determine how effective various interventions are — and in which children. “Their learning time is just way too valuable to waste any of it,” Camarata said.