The study, which was published online in the APA journalBehavioral Neuroscience, involved 28 autistic boys, ages 3 to 12. Researchers placed the boys in two groups based on their age and autism severity. For six months, both groups participated in standard behavioral therapy but boys in one of the groups also underwent daily environmental enrichment exercises.
Parents of each of the 13 boys in the enrichment group received a kit that contained essential oil fragrances such as apple, lavender, lemon and vanilla to stimulate sense of smell. For touch, the kit contained squares of plastic doormat, smooth foam, a rubber sink mat, aluminum, fine sandpaper, felt and sponges. The kit also included pieces of carpet, hard flooring, pillows, cardboard and bubble wrap that parents laid on the floor to create a multi-textured walking path. Items for the children to manipulate included a piggy bank with plastic coins, miniature plastic fruits and a small fishing pole with a magnetic hook. Many household items were also used, such as bowls for holding water at different temperatures for the child to dip in a hand or foot and metal spoons that parents would warm or cool and touch to the child’s skin.
Researchers instructed the parents of children in the enrichment group to conduct two sessions a day of four to seven exercises involving different combinations of sensory stimuli for touch, temperature, sight and movement. Each session took 15 to 30 minutes to complete. The children also listened to classical music once a day.
Following six months of therapy, 42 percent of the children in the enrichment group significantly improved in behaviors such as relating to people and responding to sights and sounds, compared to 7 percent of the standard care group, according to the study. The children in the enrichment group also improved on scores for cognitive function, which covers aspects of perception and reasoning, whereas the average scores for the children in the standard care group decreased. In addition, 69 percent of parents in the enrichment group reported improvement in their child’s overall autism symptoms, compared to 31 percent of parents of the standard care group, the authors wrote.