AHRQ Research Reveals Massage, Sensory Interventions Improve Autism Behaviors
Press Release Date: May 26, 2017
Sensory-focused interventions—such as massage, swinging and trampoline exercises and exposure to different textures—reduced sensory and motor impairments in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to an analysis funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), highlighted today in the journal Pediatrics.
Meanwhile, an additional AHRQ-supported article in Pediatrics concluded that little evidence currently exists to support the use of nutritional supplements or gluten-free/casein-free diets to improve autistic behaviors in children.
Omega-3 fatty acid supplements, in particular, have not been shown to improve challenging behaviors and are associated with minor harms, such as infections and fever, skin changes and gastrointestinal symptoms, researchers concluded.
The Pediatrics articles summarized a broad range of evidence about strategies that are commonly used to manage autism symptoms in children of varying ages with ASD. The article on nutritional supplements and special diets, for example, noted that an enzyme supplement was no better than a placebo at improving behaviors. The article on sensory-focused approaches, meanwhile, concluded that some improvements occurred following massage and music therapy, but that auditory integration—playing sounds and music at varying volumes—did not improve language. Due to the short duration of current studies, it is unknown if the benefits lasted for more than 6 months.
Both ASD papers were based on AHRQ-funded evidence reviews, which summarized previous research findings on ASD interventions and aimed to provide clinicians and patients with information to make the best possible health care decisions. Authors of the evidence reviews noted that the included studies only followed patients for 6 months or less. They concluded that more research is needed over longer periods of time to establish additional evidence on the benefits and harms of various ASD interventions.
“More work is clearly needed on how best to meet the needs of children with autism spectrum disorder,” said AHRQ’s Chief Medical Officer David Meyers, M.D. “But these reports offer important new insights for clinicians, caregivers and the thousands of families who need reliable information when considering various recommended interventions.”
The Pediatrics articles and AHRQ evidence reviews on diet and nutritional supplements and sensory interventions were authored by researchers at the Vanderbilt University Evidence-based Practice Center. It is one of 13 AHRQ-funded research centers nationwide that provide comprehensive, science-based reviews of the evidence on common medical conditions and new health care technologies and strategies. The full evidence reviews are available to the public on the AHRQ website.
About 1 in 68 U.S. children have ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, it is estimated that 42 percent to 88 percent have impairments related to sensory processing. Autism affects boys nearly five times higher than girls, according to AutismSpeaks, a national advocacy organization that nominated this topic for AHRQ to fund this research.
AHRQ is a research agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In addition to researching topics on ways to make health care safer, higher quality, more accessible, equitable, and affordable, it works with HHS and other partners to make sure that the evidence is understood and used. For more information, visit www.ahrq.gov.