CONTEXT: Sensory challenges are common among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the effectiveness and safety of interventions targeting sensory challenges in ASD.
DATA SOURCES: Databases, including Medline and PsycINFO.
STUDY SELECTION: Two investigators independently screened studies against predetermined criteria.
DATA EXTRACTION: One investigator extracted data with review by a second. Investigators independently assessed risk of bias and strength of evidence (SOE), or confidence in the estimate of effects.
RESULTS: Twenty-four studies, including 20 randomized controlled trials (RCTs), were included. Only 3 studies had low risk of bias. Populations, interventions, and outcomes varied. Limited, short-term studies reported potential positive effects of several approaches in discrete skill domains. Specifically, sensory integration-based approaches improved sensory and motor skills-related measures (low SOE). Environmental enrichment improved nonverbal cognitive skills (low SOE). Studies of auditory integration-based approaches did not improve language (low SOE). Massage improved symptom severity and sensory challenges in studies with likely overlapping participants (low SOE). Music therapy studies evaluated different protocols and outcomes, precluding synthesis (insufficient SOE). Some positive effects were reported for other approaches, but findings were inconsistent (insufficient SOE).
LIMITATIONS: Studies were small and short-term, and few fully categorized populations.
CONCLUSIONS: Some interventions may yield modest short-term (<6 months) improvements in sensory- and ASD symptom severity-related outcomes; the evidence base is small, and the durability of the effects is unclear. Although some therapies may hold promise, substantial needs exist for continuing improvements in methodologic rigor.
- ASD —
- autism spectrum disorder
- DSM-5 —
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
- RCT —
- randomized controlled trial
- SOE —
- strength of the evidence
As defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) include deficits in social skills and communication; restricted and repetitive behaviors; excessive adherence to routine; intense interest patterns, and atypical sensory interests or responses.1 Although challenging to operationalize and measure clinically, estimates indicate that 42% to 88% of people with ASD have impairments related to sensory processing that include both hyper- and hyporesponsiveness.2–4 Sensory symptoms can involve both strong interests and aversions.
Sensory-focused interventions commonly target aversions/challenges, meeting needs for sensory input within adaptive frameworks, or may target perceived processing deficits, with the goal of improving people’s abilities to interact with their environments. For example, a child with ASD may have difficulty tolerating bright lights, clothing or food textures, specific noises, daily living tasks, touch, or more idiosyncratic stimuli, such as certain colors. Alternatively, some children with may ASD may show a fascination with visually examining objects, seeking out certain textures to rub/touch (eg, clothing or hair), or experiencing the sound of certain objects/actions. These sensitivities and interests can interfere significantly with children’s abilities to care for themselves, leave the home, participate in school, and be involved in social situations.
Although sensory challenges are common and impairing features of ASD for many, research examining the nature of sensory impairments across the life span has been lacking. Specifically, the field has historically lacked accepted frameworks for diagnosing sensory challenges (eg, sensory symptoms were not part of DSM diagnostic criteria until DSM-5) and developing responsive interventions.2,3,5,6 Although an increasing number of interventions exist, their mechanisms and targets for change are not consistently defined. Broadly, interventions targeting sensory challenges involve the incorporation of sensory experiences (eg, sounds, texture, pressure, and so on) to affect a variety of outcomes. Consensus is also lacking regarding whether interventions work by acting on the underlying sensory processing differences commonly associated with ASD, how specific versus general these effects may be, and how generalizable any improvements may be over time to other situations that may tax sensory processing systems.
In the present review, a component of an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality-commissioned update of a comparative effectiveness review of therapies for children with ASD conducted by the Vanderbilt Evidence-based Practice Center,7 we examine the evidence specifically for interventions targeting sensory challenges in children with ASD. The full comparative effectiveness review update8 and review protocol (PROSPERO registry number CRD42016033941) are available at www.effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov.
Search Strategy and Study Selection
We searched the Medline database via PubMed, Embase, and the Cochrane Library from January 2010 to September 2016 using a combination of controlled vocabulary and key terms related to ASD and sensory challenges (eg, autism, ASD, and sensory integration). We note that the original review,9 which the current report updates, included studies from January 2000 to 2011. We also hand-searched the reference lists of included articles and recent reviews addressing ASD therapies to identify potentially relevant articles.
We developed inclusion criteria in consultation with an expert panel of clinicians and researchers (Table 1). We included comparative study designs (eg, randomized controlled trials [RCTs] and prospective or retrospective cohort studies) and studies published in English. We required that eligible RCTs have a total minimum sample size of 10. We required a higher minimum sample size (n = 20) for other comparative studies because they typically have fewer controls for bias than RCTs.
Data Extraction and Analysis
One investigator extracted data regarding study design; descriptions of study populations, intervention, and comparison groups; and baseline and outcome data. A second investigator independently verified the accuracy of the extraction and made revisions as needed. Significant heterogeneity in interventions and outcomes reported precluded meta-analysis; thus, we synthesized studies qualitatively and report descriptive statistics in tables (Tables 2 and 3).
Assessment of Study Risk of Bias and Strength of Evidence
Two investigators independently evaluated the overall methodologic risk of bias of individual studies using the ASD-specific assessment approach developed and used in previous reviews of interventions for ASD.7,10,11 Senior reviewers resolved discrepancies in risk-of-bias assessment, and we used an approach described in the full review8 to determine low, moderate, or high risk-of-bias ratings.
Assessment of the strength of the evidence (SOE) reflects the confidence that we have in the stability of treatment effects in the face of future research. The degree of confidence that the observed effect of an intervention is unlikely to change in additional research, the SOE, is presented as insufficient, low, moderate, or high. Assessments are based on consideration of study limitations, consistency in the direction of the effect, directness in measuring intended outcomes, the precision of the effect, and reporting bias.12 We determined the SOE separately for major intervention-outcome pairs using a prespecified approach, which is described in detail in the full review.8
Our searches (conducted for the broader systematic review update8) identified 6573 citations, of which 24 (reported in multiple publications) met the inclusion criteria (Fig 1). Seventeen of these studies were published after the completion of our initial review of therapies for children with ASD,7 and 713–19 were included in the previous review. The studies included 20 RCTs,13–32 1 nonrandomized trial,33 and 3 retrospective cohort studies.34–36 Three studies had low risk of bias,21,23,30 10 had moderate risk of bias,14,15,19,20,22,24,25,27,29,31,32 and 11 (including 1 publication26 reporting 2 unique RCTs) had high risk of bias.13,16–18,26,28,33–36 Table 2 outlines the study characteristics and risk of bias assessments.
We categorized interventions addressed in the included studies based on the core strategies used in each intervention. In some cases, this approach grouped together interventions that may have used specific, manualized techniques with others that used only a subset of those techniques (eg, “Ayres-based” sensory integration and sensory integration models that may have used some Ayres strategies). We note that no alternative approaches would have substantially changed our overall findings in terms of SOE.
Based on the literature meeting criteria for this review, we categorized interventions as:
sensory integration-based (interventions using combinations of sensory and kinetic components, such as materials with different textures, touch/massage, swinging and trampoline exercises, and balance and muscle resistance exercises to ameliorate sensory challenges);
environmental enrichment-based (interventions incorporating targeted exposure to sensory stimuli to promote tolerance of stimuli in other contexts);
auditory integration-based (interventions incorporating auditory components, such as filtered sound to ameliorate sensory processing challenges via theorized retraining of aural pathways);
music therapy-based (interventions incorporating playing or singing music, or movement to music, to improve challenging behaviors and sensory difficulties);
massage-based (interventions incorporating touch-based approaches by a therapist or caregiver); and
other/additional (included interventions [tactile-based tasks, weighted blankets] not cleanly fitting into one of the broader categories).
Studies of Sensory Integration-based Approaches
In 3 out of 4 small, short-term studies (1 low,21 1 moderate,20 and 2 high13,34 risk of bias), sensory-related measures and motor skills measures improved for children receiving a sensory integration-based intervention compared with another intervention, but effects on other outcomes were typically not statistically significantly different between groups (Table 3). Several outcomes were also parent-reported, and parents were often aware of intervention status.
In 1 RCT, children with ASD and a diagnosed sensory processing disorder received treatment focused on sensory integration or treatment focused on building fine motor skills.21 Both groups improved significantly on blinded parent and teacher ratings of goal attainment related to sensory processing, motor skills, and social functioning, with children receiving sensory integration improving significantly more than those receiving motor skills intervention (P ≤ .05). Children in the sensory integration group had significantly fewer parent-rated autistic mannerisms posttreatment than the fine motor group (P ≤ .05), but other measures of sensory processing, ASD symptoms, or neurologic functioning did not differ between groups. Another RCT compared manualized occupational therapy with sensory integration to care as usual.20 After treatment, children receiving sensory integration-based treatment showed significantly more goals attained and significantly greater improvements in social skills and self-care measures compared with children receiving usual care (P = .003). Measures of adaptive behavior or other measures related to functional skills (eg, self-care and mobility) did not differ between groups.
In a retrospective study comparing sensory integration-based therapy in children with high functioning ASD (IQs >70), both groups received active treatment that included either sensory integration-based therapy or eclectic group therapy.34 Participants in the sensory integration group improved significantly more than those in the control group in measures of motor abilities, memory and visualization, and combined sensory motor and cognitive skills assessed by an unblinded investigator (P values < .05). They did not show relative improvements in measures of spatial positioning, sense of touch, or verbal ability. Finally, in an RCT evaluating the effects of a sensory integration-based protocol on low-functioning children with ASD, children receiving sensory integration-based intervention had significantly fewer parent-rated sensory problems at follow-up than children in the usual-care control group.13
Studies of Environmental Enrichment-based Approaches
Two small RCTs (low23 and moderate22 risk of bias) of environmental enrichment examined the same protocol and reported improvements in ASD symptoms, receptive language, and nonverbal cognitive skills after 6 months of treatment (Table 3). Compared with usual care, children receiving environmental enrichment had a more significant decrease in clinician-rated ASD symptoms (P = .03) at the end of treatment in 1 RCT, with nearly 5 times as many participants in the treatment group showing clinically significant drops of ≥5 points (42% vs 7%, P = .03).22 The treatment group also had a 9-point increase in nonverbal cognitive skills compared with a decrease of ∼3 points in the usual care group (P = .008). Both groups improved on expressive language skills, with no significant differences.
A second RCT built on the preliminary work by examining use of the same sensorimotor enrichment regimen over 6 months.23 The treatment groups, which experienced significant attrition, showed more improvement than did the control group in receptive language skills, but both groups improved comparably for expressive language. The treatment group had significantly more improvement on mean nonverbal IQ scores as well as parent-rated sensory reactivity. Although more children in the treatment group compared with the control group shifted their diagnostic classification on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-2 from “autism” to “autism spectrum,” all children across both groups continued to meet the cut-offs for ASD, making it difficult to interpret the clinical significance of the findings.
Studies of Auditory Integration-based Approaches
Two small, short-term RCTs of auditory integration-based approaches (moderate risk of bias) reported no significant differences between groups in language outcomes assessed on parent, teacher, and clinician observation measures.14,15 Two high risk of bias RCTs (reported in a single publication) reported significant parent-rated improvements in hearing sensitivity and behavior (Table 3).26 One crossover RCT comparing music passed through an electronic ear for attenuation and modulation to commercially produced music reported no statistically significant treatment effects on language skills.14 Another RCT of auditory integration therapy for children with significant language delays reported no significant benefits of auditory integration.15 Two RCTs examined the use of filtered music and reported some parent-rated improvement in hearing sensitivity, spontaneous speech, listening, and behavioral organization after filtered music compared with children in the control condition (P ≤ .05).26 Across both trials, groups did not differ in the other behavioral domains rated.
Studies of Music Therapy-based Approaches
Five small studies (2 low,30–32 1 moderate,25 and 2 high16,33 risk of bias) addressing music therapy-based approaches reported some significant effects on measures of behavior (social engagement, behavioral organization), verbal and nonverbal communication, and joint attention (directing and sharing attention to objects or events) with music-based intervention compared with control interventions (Table 3). Studies used different protocols and addressed different outcomes, and thus, drawing conclusions across studies is challenging.
One RCT (reported in 2 publications) compared a trainer-led rhythm and movement-based approach, a robot group focused on imitation, and a control group engaging in tabletop activities.31,32 Both rhythm and robot treatment groups demonstrated greater posttest attention to trainers than to objects than did the control group (P < .001), with greater attention in the rhythm group than the robot group (P < .001). The rhythm group also demonstrated the greatest duration of spontaneous social attention, followed by the robot group and the control group (P < .001). Children in the robot group had greater self-directed vocalization compared with the other groups (P < .002), whereas children in the rhythm and control groups had greater spontaneous social verbalization to trainers than did children in the robot group (P < .03). In another RCT, children who received family-centered music therapy plus early intensive intervention had more improvement than those receiving early intensive intervention alone in parent-rated social engagement (P < .001), but remained significantly impaired relative to typically developing peers.25 Groups did not differ on parent-reported autism symptoms, speech and language, or quality of the parent-child relationship.
In a crossover RCT comparing music therapy and toy play, investigators observed more joy, emotional synchronicity, and initiation of engagement during music therapy than in play sessions. In addition, children had significantly more compliant behavior and significantly fewer episodes of lack of response in the music therapy condition.16 Finally, 2 studies evaluating different forms of music therapy compared with treatment as usual or no treatment reported no significant group differences in outcome measurements, including ASD symptom severity and social skills at follow-up.30,33
Studies of Massage
Studies compared either massage with no massage; massage plus sensory integration-based treatment versus sensory integration-based treatment alone; and massage plus attachment therapy versus attachment therapy alone (Table 3). Almost all studies were from 1 group of investigators, and the participant overlap is unclear. Studies comparing massage to no massage generally reported improvements related to sensory processing, autism symptoms, and parent stress in both treatment and control groups over the course of 5 months of either parent- or parent and therapist-delivered intervention, with treatment groups improving significantly more than controls. The difficulty differentiating populations in these studies limits the SOE for their findings, although results seem promising regarding a sensory-focused intervention that can be delivered within the home environment with minimal risk of harms.
Five studies17,19,24,29,35 (3 moderate19,24,29 and 2 high17,35 risk of bias) with unclear participant overlap compared children who received massage to wait-listed controls or those who received usual care. Children receiving massage improved significantly on parent ratings of autism symptoms as well as parent ratings of sensory challenges and self-regulation skills compared with children not receiving massage (P ≤ .05).17,19,24 Gains were maintained for 19 treatment group participants whose parents were available to provide data 5 months posttreatment, but data were unavailable on other participants.17 In a retrospective report, children receiving either parent-delivered or parent and therapist-delivered massage had greater improvements in tactile defensiveness, self-regulation skills, and parent stress than did children not receiving massage (P < .001).35 In 1 report assessing parent and therapist-delivered massage, post-hoc analyses revealed specific treatment effects on parent-rated, but not clinician-rated, measures of autism symptoms, receptive (but not expressive) language, sensory processing, and parent stress improved more in the treatment group compared with the control group (P < .01). Group differences in social and daily living skills were not significant.29
One RCT (high risk of bias) comparing sensory integration-based therapy compared with sensory integration-based therapy plus traditional Thai massage, parent-rated measures of anxiety and conduct improved in the massage group versus the control group (P ≤ .03).18 Children in both conditions had improved sleep as well as teacher ratings of conduct, attention, and activity level (P = NS). One retrospective cohort study (high risk of bias) investigating massage therapy with and without attachment therapy reported significant improvements in social maturity in the massage group compared with attachment therapy alone (P = .005), but measures of symptom severity did not differ significantly between groups.36
Other interventions with sensory-related components reported limited differences between treatment groups (Table 3). One RCT (high risk of bias) examining the impact of a hands-on, tactile-based activity on the ability to learn a novel task reported greater perceived ease of learning for children in the hands-on participation group compared with children in the control, observation-only condition immediately posttreatment (P values ≤ .05).28 In another RCT (moderate risk of bias), parents were more likely to rate their children as calmer and sleeping better when using a weighted blanket (P ≤ .04), despite a lack of physiologic evidence to support this (no significant group differences in actigraphy measures).27 Investigators reported that 1 child developed a rash that may have been due to the blanket (resolved in 2 days).
Table 4 outlines SOE ratings. Sensory-related and motor skill outcomes improved in children receiving a sensory integration-based intervention compared with those receiving usual care or other treatment (significant improvements in 3 of 4 studies addressing the outcome). We have low confidence in these conclusions given the small sample sizes and short study durations (low SOE). Similarly, we have low confidence in the conclusion that environmental enrichment approaches improved nonverbal cognitive skills (low SOE). These enrichment approaches did not affect expressive language. We have low confidence in this conclusion (low SOE). We have low confidence in the conclusion that auditory integration-based approaches do not improve language outcomes (low SOE).
Massage improved sensory challenges and ASD symptom severity compared with no massage. Our confidence in this conclusion is low (low SOE). Massage did not improve maladaptive behavior (low SOE). We could not make conclusions about other comparisons, including for music therapy or the effects of sensory or auditory integration-based approaches or massage on other outcomes, given the lack of data (insufficient SOE).
We identified limited evidence for positive effects of sensory integration-based, environmental enrichment, and massage modalities. The lack of consistency in implementation combined with generally small sample sizes (median sample size = 34 total) and limited follow-up make it difficult to draw strong conclusions regarding treatment efficacy. Populations across studies were heterogeneous in terms of sensory challenges, ASD severity, age, and intellectual and adaptive functioning. Interventions, even within our broader categories, used differing sensory-specific approaches in differing combinations of components, settings, and duration, complicating our ability to draw conclusions across the body of literature. Longer-term outcomes are limited as is our ability to determine the effects of interventions on the underlying sensory challenges themselves. Potential harms of interventions were addressed in only 1 study, and few studies assessed factors that may modify effectiveness or drive the effects of interventions. Studies often used multicomponent strategies, and teasing apart the effects of specific components is not currently possible. These limitations in the evidence underscore the need for caregivers and referring providers to assess the possible benefits of specific sensory-focused intervention modalities based on the individual needs of the child, broader family goals and capacities, and interventions of more established effectiveness. In this capacity, some practice groups have recommended clear communication regarding the limits of intervention.37,38
Despite these limitations, investigators have made significant improvements in incorporating commonly used measures of symptom severity, behavior, language, and sensory difficulties to facilitate comparisons across studies. Parent-reported outcomes are necessary in this population of children, many of whom may not be able to complete aspects of assessments; however, studies are increasingly incorporating standardized interactive or observational measurement strategies. Moreover, an increasing use of treatment fidelity measures and replicable intervention protocols establishes a promising baseline for future investigations. Investigators in the area are also well aware of the challenges of conducting research using a disparate and variously defined set of approaches in a highly heterogeneous population and have made strides in incorporating outcome measures that attempt to balance heterogeneity and comparative effectiveness and measures of intervention fidelity.39
Our findings generally align with recent previous reviews of sensory-focused interventions.6,40–49 Previous reviews typically noted low to moderate support for sensory integration-based approaches and limited evidence for other approaches. Reviews differentiating sensory integration approaches and more general “sensory-based” approaches reported better evidence from those studies that evaluated specific, typically manualized, sensory integration modalities compared with sensory-based approaches.3,47 One review of auditory integration approaches reported no evidence of effectiveness.41 One review of music therapy reported promising findings related to improvements in social interaction and communication,50 and 1 review addressing massage reported that limited evidence precluded conclusions.40 Previous reviews also consistently noted considerable heterogeneity, limited study quality/high risk of bias, limited follow-up, and lack of treatment fidelity.
Limitations of the Review
We included studies published in English only and did not include gray literature. Based on a scan of non-English publications, we concluded that excluding non-English studies would not introduce significant bias into the review, and previous studies have noted limited bias from such exclusion.51–53 We also included only comparative studies of interventions with a sensory-specific focus and that included at least 10 children with ASD, and this undoubtedly means that most single-subject design studies were not included in this review. Single-subject designs can be helpful in assessing response to treatment in short time frames and under tightly controlled circumstances, but they typically do not provide information on longer-term or functional outcomes.
As noted, other approaches to categorizing sensory-focused interventions could also be used, and widespread consensus on a categorization approach is lacking. This review was also focused specifically on children with ASD and only on interventions targeting sensory challenges. Sensory approaches may be used with individuals with other diagnoses, and findings may be generalizable to children with ASD. However, including studies of children with other conditions was beyond our scope, as was inclusion of any intervention approach (eg, primarily behavioral or educational) reporting a sensory-related outcome. Finally, we used a nonvalidated tool to assess risk of bias, although the tool evaluates similar constructs to those assessed by tools such as that used by the Cochrane Collaboration, with the addition of ASD-specific domains.
Areas for Future Research
Several adjustments to study design would strengthen our ability to draw conclusions from future work. Many sample sizes were small, limiting their power to detect effects. Duration of treatment and follow-up were generally short, and the extent to which the effects of therapies could be expected to continue after cessation of treatment is not clear. Although some approaches may not hypothesize such durability, such data are nevertheless necessary for guiding pragmatic implementation and setting realistic expectations of effects for clinicians and families. In addition, few studies adequately accounted for concomitant interventions that might confound observed effectiveness.
Compared with our previous review, more studies used a common set of outcome measures. The extent to which these measures assess changes in potential underlying sensory-related impairments remains unclear, and understanding whether intervention can alter underlying vulnerabilities rather than short-term behavioral responses is a critical need. Translational work to understand the relationship between sensory symptoms and their potential neurobiology would inform intervention design.
It will be important for future work to compare sensory-based interventions not only to treatment as usual, but also to other interventions that involve engaged and active time with an adult, as did some studies in the current review.21,23,36 Additional research is needed that controls for environmental or social factors that could cloud our ability to draw conclusions regarding effects. It will be important to identify which children are likely to benefit from particular interventions. To date, studies have provided limited characterization of treatment responders as well as the extent or type of sensory challenges children experience at baseline. Interventions targeting sensory challenges by their nature often employ multiple components, but our understanding of which components may drive effectiveness is lacking. Component analyses in this field would be productive for refining intervention approaches and for assessing the generalizability of results.
In sum, some interventions targeting sensory challenges may yield modest improvements, primarily in sensory- and ASD symptom severity-related outcomes. However, the evidence base for any category of intervention is small, and the durability of the effects beyond the immediate intervention period is unclear. Sensory integration-based approaches improved outcomes related to sensory challenges and motor skills, and studies of massage reported improvements in sensory responses and ASD symptoms. Environmental enrichment was also associated with improvements in nonverbal cognitive skills in the short term. Auditory integration-based approaches did not improve language outcomes. Some positive effects were associated with other approaches studied (music therapy, weighted blankets), but findings in these small studies were not consistent. Data on longer-term results are lacking. Although some therapies may hold promise and warrant additional study, substantial needs exist for continuing improvements in methodologic rigor in the field.
Dr Shanthi Krishnaswami and Ms Jessica Kimber contributed to the data extraction. We thank the full research team and our Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality task order officers and associate editor for their input.
- Accepted February 10, 2017.
- Address correspondence to Amy S. Weitlauf, PhD, Department of Pediatrics, Vanderbilt Medical Center, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, 230 Appleton Place, PMB 74, Nashville, TN 37203. E-mail:
This project was funded under contract HHSA209201500003I from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, US Department of Health and Human Services. The authors of this manuscript are responsible for its content. Statements in the manuscript should not be construed as endorsement by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or the US Department of Health and Human Services. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality retains a license to display, reproduce, and distribute the data and the report from which this manuscript was derived under the terms of the agency’s contract with the author.
This manuscript was derived from a systematic review conducted by the Vanderbilt Evidence-based Practice Center, “Interventions Targeting Sensory Challenges in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)—an Update,” which will be published in full on the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Web site.
FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: All authors received funding for this project under Contract No. HHSA290201500003I from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, US Department of Health and Human Services. No authors have any other financial or other disclosures relevant to this article.
FUNDING: This work was supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (contract HHSA290201500003I).
POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The authors have indicated they have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.
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