Environmental Enrichment as a Therapy for Autism: A Clinical Trial Replication and Extension


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Abstract

Based on work done in animal models showing that autism-like symptoms are ameliorated following exposure to an enriched sensorimotor environment, we attempted to develop a comparable therapy for children with autism. In an initial randomized controlled trial, children with autism who received sensorimotor enrichment at home for 6 months had significant improvements in both their cognitive ability and the severity of their autism symptoms (Woo & Leon, 2013). We now report the outcomes of a similar randomized controlled trial in which children with autism, 3 to 6 years old, were randomly assigned to groups that received either daily sensorimotor enrichment, administered by their parents, along with standard care, or they received standard care alone. After 6 months, enriched children showed statistically significant gains in their IQ scores, a decline in their atypical sensory responses, and an improvement in their receptive language performance, compared to controls. Furthermore, after 6 months of enrichment therapy, 21% of the children who initially had been given an autism classification, using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, improved to the point that, although they remained on the autism spectrum, they no longer met the criteria for classic autism. None of the standard care controls reached an equivalent level of improvement. Finally, the outcome measures for children who received only a subset of sensory stimuli were similar to those receiving the full complement of enrichment exercises. Sensorimotor enrichment therapy therefore appears to be a cost-effective means of treating a range of symptoms for children with autism.

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