Autism Therapy Retrains Fight FLight response
November 26, 2013

Alternative Autism Therapy Retrains ‘Fight Or Flight’ Response

Ranjini Raghunath for - Your Universe Online

Our senses work together to paint a picture of the world around us. The way we respond to stimuli outside (a sight or a smell, for instance) depends on how well our senses work together and how the brain processes this 'integrated' signal.

However, a simple activity such as smelling a flower can turn into a nightmare when the signals don’t integrate and the brain is not able to understand these garbled signals.

This is especially difficult for children with autism who often react by avoiding the object that they can’t make sense of. A child whose brain cannot process touch comfortably, for example, might avoid touching paint or sand, or scream in the shower when the water is turned on.

Behavioral training, which involves giving rewards for tasks that are completed, is the current norm for autism care. Another technique that seems to work better is identifying what discomfits the child and using playful activities to help them become gradually comfortable with that sensation.

This method, called Sensory Integration using Occupational Therapy (OT-SI), appears to produce better and faster results than behavioral training, according to a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

For example, if a child feels distressed while taking a shower, behavioral training works by giving the child more rewards if they stay longer in the shower. Occupational therapy, on the other hand, first identifies which aspect of the shower is most terrifying for the child (Is it the water temperature? Or the intensity of the shower stream?) and tailoring the treatment accordingly. Treatment includes fun activities such as letting the child play in a ball pit to get used to the sensation of touch.

“When we get improved processing of sensation, the children are often better able to participate in everyday tasks,” said first author Roseann Schaaf, Thomas Jefferson University occupational therapist and neuroscientist, in a statement.

For the study, 32 children between 4 and 8 years of age were randomly given either occupational or behavioral therapy and evaluated by investigators who did not know which therapy the child had undergone. Children in the occupational therapy group scored higher on their assessments compared to those in the behavioral training group. They also needed less assistance from their parents, and their social skills improved significantly, the paper reported.

While behavioral therapy takes between 25 and 40 hours a week, and may take up to 2 years to show positive results, the OT-SI techniques used by Schaaf and her colleagues took only three hours a week and were completed in a span of just 10 weeks.

Occupational therapy is one such alternative to conventional autism care methods. Another study published earlier this year described a combination of “biofeedback” and hypnotherapy to help autistic children 'turn down' their flight or fight responses in stressful situations. This technique enables children to see their own reactions to looking at stressful images or playing video games by using sensors to measure their pulse and breathing. Clinical hypnosis is then used to help them control or manipulate their responses to these stressful stimuli.