Jul 28, 2021

Therapeutic Touch Therapy: The Intriguing Science Behind A Holistic Autism Treatment

Therapeutic touch therapy is a calculated massage technique and may act as a treatment for autism. This article explores the science behind therapeutic touch.

The diagnosis of autism is not black and white, but rather a spectrum, which is why it is commonly referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This being said, with all of our articles on ASD, please take the results with a grain of salt.

Some studies will show that benefits were founded when deep pressure touch –such as a weighted blanket– was used, and some will show no shifts in the variable being studied. We present the information accurately and give our insights, but we hope that you will also use your mind to critically think about what the post may mean for your situation, whatever that may be.

Today’s topic is a bit different in the sense that the treatment provided is not necessarily deep pressure touch, but rather Therapeutic Touch Therapy. Although Therapeutic Touch Therapy does provide the same stimulation as a weighted blanket, it does not have the deep pressure component. You may be asking why we would touch on this then (puns?), well again, we want to give you a full scope of what’s out there and Therapeutic Touch Therapy does fall under the umbrella of deep pressure stimulation, even without the deep pressure.

The researchers sought to determine if Therapeutic Touch Therapy would reduce three symptoms that are commonly seen within children who are diagnosed with autism:

  • Inattentiveness (Distractibility)
  • Touch Aversion (Not wanting to be touched)
  • Withdrawn from social interaction

Side Note: As I was editing this document in preparation to post it, the grammar checker attempted to switch the phrase “children who were diagnosed with autism” to “autistic children,” so I wanted to touch on person-first language a bit for you guys! As a clinician, I was always taught to put the person before the diagnosis/label/ handicap or whatever because they are a person and their condition does not define them. End Side Note.

Summary

  • Therapeutic Touch Therapy may work for this population!
  • Note that these results may vary on others. Some may experience similar results and some may not.
  • The touch therapy method used was not practical, and I would like to see a similar study with someone that a child could use on their own when they are feeling unsettled.

Therapeutic Touch Therapy Participants

Fun fact: The article I am writing about today uses the word “subjects” rather than participants because it is older. Back in the day, people who were used in studies were referred to as subjects, but within the past 20 years, there has been a shift in the language where researchers now refer to the people involved as participants.

Gillis (1976) commented on the shift and surveyed a group of people; 66% preferred the term participants, 25% preferred subjects, and 9% had no preference.

Let’s take a look at our participants for this study:

  • 22 children (12 males and 10 females) who were diagnosed with autism (Based on the DSM-III-R, which was the most up-to-date version at the time).
  • The average age of the children: 4.5
  • They were all from the middle socioeconomic class

How were Data Collected?

The children were randomly split up into two groups, an experimental group, and a control group. The experimental group received the Therapeutic Touch Therapy that was being tested, whereas the control group received a similar activity that was not as intensive.

The purpose of a control group is to have something to check the treatment group against, thus proving that change is actually occurring. You’ll notice that in some studies, participants act as their own control and receive both the control treatment and the experimental treatment.

Various considerations go into choosing an experimental design, but researchers do have an option to split participants up into two groups (control versus experimental) or have participants act as their own control.

The study lasted for four weeks, over the course of eight therapy sessions. During their twice a week therapy sessions, they received exactly 15 minutes of either the control treatment or experimental treatment depending on what group they were assigned to.

The experimental treatment group received the following Therapeutic Touch Therapy sequence:

Therapeutic Touch Therapy Protocol

The control group was held in the lap of a research assistant and hugged while they engaged in a game for 15 minutes.

Therapeutic Touch Therapy Study Measurements

Three assessments were completed prior to the start of the study to ensure that all the children generally had the same deficits and abilities, thus making the control group versus the experimental group more comparable.

Assessments were completed before the start of the treatment and after the treatment concluded. The following assessments were used:

Can Therapeutic Touch Therapy Help with Autism-Related Symptoms?

*There was no difference based on gender*

1. With Classroom Behavior

General Result: There were decreases in behaviors observed for both groups.

Changes in behaviors after touch therapy

2. With the Autism Behavior Checklist

General Results: Only the children who received the experimental treatment had noticeable changes.

changes in autism behaviours after touch therapy

3. With the Early Social Communication Scales

General Results: Significant changes were founded by those who were in the experimental treatment group.

changes in communication scores after touch therapy

Author’s Insights

The data displayed above shows that Therapeutic Touch Therapy provided to the experimental group was effective in reducing the studied behaviors. However, there were changes noticed in the control group as well, so what could this mean? The control group did receive a version of touch as well, as a hug is a form of Therapeutic Touch Therapy, so it is understood why improvements were seen in this group as well.

The Therapeutic Touch Therapy procedure performed by the researchers for the experimental group was intensive, to say the least. This is not a very practical way to deliver Therapeutic Touch Therapy, in my opinion. At the time this study was conducted and written up, there were other methods available, so as I was reading this, I wondered what led to the researchers choosing this method.

Also, I wonder if there would be similar results if the regiment for Therapeutic Touch Therapy was less intensive and focused on a specific body part or body region. Also, how can it be ensured that the students delivered the same amount of pressure during each session? With a manual touch, consistency is threatened.

The results are positive and indicate that Therapeutic Touch Therapy can be effective with symptoms of autism, per this study, however as I caveated earlier, this is not a one-size-fits-all study.

As I mentioned earlier, autism is a spectrum, so what may work on this sample size, may not work on another person. The researchers did well to ensure that the participants used were within a similar range on the spectrum, but because they were so selective, this further prevents generalizability.

The inattention improvement struck me as something that could potentially be applied to those who have been diagnosed with ADHD, as inattention is one of the main symptoms associated with ADHD. Of course, this is a leap, and many variables come into play that may make this assumption inaccurate, but it is something that could be tested in the future. Hint, hint, to the researcher who is reading this!

Welch (1988) commented on this study and reported that although the outcomes are impressive, they could be due to learned helplessness, as children with autism typically do not like to be touched, and this is exactly what is being asked of them.

The children could have initially felt a surge of anxiety but realized that this was still going to occur, so they gave in and endured it. Of course, there is no way for us to know if Welch’s (1988) thoughts on this are what actually happened, but the thoughts merely act as another layer of skepticism, which we welcome! What are your thoughts?

Read More!

Field, T., Lasko, D., Mundy, P., Henteleff, T., Kabat, S., Talpins, S., Dowling, M. (1997). Brief report: Autistic children’s attentiveness and responsivity improve after touch therapy. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 27(3), 333 – 338.

Gillis, J. (1976). Participants instead of subjects. American Psychologist, 31(1), 95-97.

Welch, M. (1988). Holding Time. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Veronica

Veronica is a mental health professional who is pursuing a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She has earned her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and now provides therapy to children and youth in the community agency setting. She has been a part of several studies withiфn the field of psychology, including cognitive psychology, sports psychology, and health psychology. Her current research interests revolve around utilizing mindfulness meditation techniques and how they can impact the health of individuals in various socio-economic settings. She also has research interests revolving around developing and implementing interventions to aid in recovery from substance abuse within the primary care setting.

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