International Meeting for Autism Research: Helping Students Self Regulate: The Effect of A Relaxation Program on Autonomic Function and Behavior In Children with ASD In the Classroom

Helping Students Self Regulate: The Effect of A Relaxation Program on Autonomic Function and Behavior In Children with ASD In the Classroom

Thursday, May 12, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
10:00 AM
E. London1, J. Foster2 and T. Hamlin3, (1)Psychology, NYS Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, Staten Island, NY, (2)Psychology, Institute For Basic Research, Staten Island, NY, (3)Center for Discovery, Harris, NY
Background:  The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates the activity of the major organ systems of the body, and mediates both homeostasis via the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the fight-or-flight stress response via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Recent research suggests that ANS dysregulation is a common feature in children with ASD, especially over-activity of the SNS (Althaus, Van Roon, Mulder, Mulder Aarnoudse & Minderaa, 2004; Groden, Goodwin, Baron, Groden, Velicer, Lipsitt, Hofmann & Plummer, 2005; Anderson & Colombo, 2008). Autonomic dysregulation can affect social engagement, attention, auditory processing as well as other sensory processing functions. (Hirstein, Iverson & Ramachandran, 2001; Schoen, Miller, Brett-Green & Hepburn, 2008).  Self regulation, or, externally aided regulation of the ANS by means of improving PNS function, may improve a student’s ability to cope with stress, improve behavior and possibly improve learning. At the Center for Discovery, we have created and implemented a procedure for students with ASD to achieve deep relaxation as a treatment modality. This procedure has been implemented successfully with all of the ASD students thus far, including very low functioning and behaviorally challenging stude  

Objectives:  1-To assess whether the intervention achieves relaxation as measured by a reduction of greater that 15% for heart rate (HR) and a 30% increase in Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA). 2-To assess the duration of the effects of the relaxation program on autonomic functioning as measured by  HR and amplitude of RSA. 3-To asses the effects of the intervention on behavioral expression, defined by frequency of three individualized target behaviors per student collected for 15 seconds every minute for three hours post intervention.   

 Methods:  In a repeated A-B-A-B design 15 students with ASD are being studied on 5 relaxation program (RP) days, verses 5 other days consisting of typical classroom activities (TCA) as a control condition. Heart rate monitoring takes place for the duration of the school day on RP and TCA days, and behavioral observations by blind raters for three hours following the procedure is collected. An activity monitor will be used to correct for changes in heart rate due to physical movement.

Results: We have successfully collected data on the first 5 subjects. Preliminary measures have indicated a significant reduction in heart rate from baseline to treatment, t(2) =-4.72, p < .05, compared with a control period of similar duration. This suggests that the program is effective in reducing cardiovascular arousal during the intervention. Reporting on the results of the ongoing effects is deferred pending the completion of the study.

 Conclusions: We have developed a cost effective, easy-to-implement intervention that has a beneficial effect on autonomic regulation and putatively for behavior in classroom settings. This intervention does not require extensive staff training, carries no risk of side effects and would be easy to introduce to other school programs if proved to be beneficial.

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