Scientific Community Shuns Sensory Integration Therapy for Autism

Sensory Processing Issues Autism

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Researchers at the University of Texas, led by Professor Mark O’Reilly, have declared that Sensory Integration Therapy (SIT) is scientifically ungrounded and should cease to be used by a majority of occupational therapists in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).  Since many agencies are mandated to use only scientifically-proven methods, they advocate that Applied Behavioral Therapy (ABA) should be the sole therapy employed.

Noteworthy is the fact that this university is among the few that offer certification in ABA.  O’Reilly’s conclusions are supported by recent statements by the American Society of Pediatrics disparaging SIT as scientifically unproven.  So say goodbye to weighted blankets, swings and bouncy balls and say hello to rote repetition of desired skills. 

Now I realize that ABA is a viable therapy for autism and is proven to establish age-appropriate, desirable behavior but does it really need to supplant SIT? 

Experts see danger in SIT because they deem it rewarding of undesirable behaviors. Act out and you get to go sit on a bouncy ball and not complete that loathsome math worksheet. And offering pleasant distractions from performing desired tasks messes up ABA therapy when used concurrently. 

My hackles are now up.  Full disclosure, my child never had ABA.  His life may have unfolded much differently and better if he had.  But he did have an overabundance of individuals who felt his spectacular meltdowns were gross manipulations in order to get out of doing something unpleasant.  And what I reiterated until I was blue in the face was that my son wasn’t trying to get out of the work itself, rather the extreme
anxiety the work induced.  There’s a term for this: Pathological Demand Avoidance, a condition in which the everyday demands of life induce unbearable stress. 

My son was hospitalized twice for anxiety, during which time he would spend the entirety of his psych ward school time convulsing because he
couldn’t bear math worksheets.  It broke my heart but the staff maintained that he would “flame out” and eventually perform the tasks, but the grand progress cited was a reduction of 5 minutes in fits by the end of his two weeks in lockdown. 

The fact is that some children need to be soothed before they can be educated. A total of two teachers in my son’s eleven years of school appreciated this. His time in their classrooms were halcyon days of productivity.  Yes, he sat on a couch instead of a desk, and from that couch he could actually focus and absorb what the teacher was saying.  Yes, if he started to get anxious, he could go for a walk but he did so before he exploded and came back calm and ready to get back into the flow. These strategies weren’t coddling, they were accommodations that worked.

I sometimes despair at the chasm between those who scientifically study autism and those of us who are actually in the trenches.  Techniques I learned from SIT were life lines. One of the blessings of my neighborhood is that we live close to a park with swings. Swinging was the fastest way to calm my son.  And what would I do if I couldn’t lay his heavy blanket over him at home, bringing him instance peace?  His public outbursts were cut by more than half after I purchased noise reducing headphones. 

Now that he’s sixteen, the headphones are hooked into his iPod.  Just last week, I took him to the dentist and cringed when I heard him shrieking inside.  His doctor emerged to report that as soon as they put a weighted blanket on him, he was fine. Some things never change. 

Maybe what you know can’t be scientifically proven, but the truth of it remains…