Sensorimotor Enrichment As an Autism Treatment

Friday, May 15, 2015: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Imperial Ballroom (Grand America Hotel)
M. Leon1 and C. C. Woo2, (1)Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA, (2)Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA
Background:   The symptoms of many human neurological disorders, including autism, are greatly ameliorated in animal models when the animals are housed in an enriched sensorimotor environment. We therefore attempted to use that approach to treat children with autism. In our initial randomized clinical trial, we used sensorimotor enrichment that consisted of daily at-home pairings of a wide range of sensory and motor activities that were changed at two-week intervals over 6 months (Woo and Leon, 2013). We found that the enriched group had a clinically significant improvement in their autism severity, as well as a clear improvement in cognition, compared to the standard care group.

Objectives:   We attempted to extend the initial findings to further study the effectiveness of sensorimotor enrichment as a treatment for autism.

Methods:   Fifty children, aged 3 to 6 years old, with classic autism were included in a randomized controlled trial.  Children in the enriched group received daily sensorimotor enrichment, conducted by their parents, using a changing set of sensorimotor exercises that invariably involved paired sensory modalities.  We communicated with the parents bi-weekly to inform them of the new exercises for their child. To determine compliance, parents were requested to keep diaries of the sensorimotor treatment.  Children in the standard care group had no change to their daily schedule.  Both groups of children continued with their ongoing standard care treatments and there were no differences between the groups regarding their participation in those treatments.  Experienced, objective assessors, who were unaware of group assignment, administered the tests at baseline and after six months. 

Results:   We found that the average IQ score for the sensorimotor enrichment group increased by 8.4 points in six months, as assessed by the Leiter-R, compared to a 1.5-point gain by the standard care group. The sensorimotor enrichment group also had an improvement in their atypical sensory responsiveness, gaining an average of 11.4 points on the Short Sensory Profile, while the standard care group improved by 2.8 points.  In addition, a statistically significant improvement in receptive language skills was observed for the sensorimotor enrichment group compared to the standard care group, as assessed by the Reynell Developmental Language Scales.  Furthermore, we found that 21% of children in the sensorimotor enrichment group who initially had been classified with classic autism using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) improved to the point that they fell below that mark after six months of therapy, while none of the children who received only standard care reached that level of improvement.

Conclusions:   The results of the initial randomized clinical trial using enriched sensorimotor stimulation were replicated and extended in this study.  We continued to observe cognitive gains, but importantly, we also found improvements in both autism classification (ADOS) and sensory responsiveness. Given the pervasive and distracting nature of sensory sensitivities often experienced by individuals on the autism spectrum, improvements in this realm are particularly relevant. Sensorimotor enrichment therapy therefore may be a cost-effective means of successfully treating a range of symptoms for children with autism.