Alternative autism therapies prove successful in local programs


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As new evidence shows that some children with autism can outgrow the disorder, alternative treatment methods such as therapeutic horseback riding are encouraging these kids to step outside of their comfort zones and step into stirrups.

The therapies are available locally. For a therapeutic massage specialized for people with autism, there is Advanced Physical Therapy and Massage in Iowa City, and Waterloo’s Aspire Therapeutic Riding Program  offers animal-assisted therapies.

In a study published last week in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, a group of people with an early history of autism later showed no signs of the disorder.

According to the study, “the results clearly demonstrate the existence of a group of individuals with an early history of [autism spectrum disorder] who no longer meet criteria for any autism spectrum disorder.”

“Children with autism commonly have a number of physiologic imbalances, including digestive disorders, immune dysfunction, metabolic disorders, and nutrient deficiencies,” said Julia Buchkina, a University of Iowa clinical assistant professor of family medicine. “It makes sense that the symptoms of autism can improve if these individual imbalances are treated.”

According to a 2012 report by the Iowa Department of Education, 3,102 of Iowa’s youth in grades K-12 live with autism.

Of these children, roughly 250 have taken part in Waterloo’s Aspire program since the its inception in 1998, program director Sara Card said.

While there is no evidence that treatment through therapeutic horseback riding can eliminate symptoms of the disorder, many have witnessed positive behavioral changes.

“We had one noncommunicative autistic boy who would only speak to us when prompted,” Card said. “We would have to rub a finger in the middle of his chest to get him to repeat what we were saying, but he said it all by himself after 12 weeks [of therapeutic horseback riding] … It’s pretty spectacular when you see things like that.”

In a study published by Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, “children with autism … showed improved motor proficiency and sensory integrative functions” after undergoing a 20-week therapeutic horseback-riding program.

Not only do children show improvements after riding programs, they also have fun.

“I’ve seen a couple of children who enjoyed it,” said Royann Mraz, a UI clinical associate professor who specializes in autism and early identification of children with disabilities.

By pushing children with autism to try something different, Aspire executive director Marilyn Moore sees children with autism build their self-confidence and learn to focus.

“I think that it brings them a different perspective in the fact that they’re in a different environment, they’re working with an animal that loves unconditionally, they’re taking risks that they wouldn’t normally take, they’re taken out of their comfort zone, and they’re getting to try things they’ve never tried before,” she said.

Therapeutic horseback riding isn’t the only hands-on alternative therapy for autism.

For some children with autism, massage therapy serves as a way to improve sensory integration.

“Many autistic children exhibit disordered sensory processing,” Buchkina said. “It is thought that massage can help to regulate this sensory response. Massage can also relieve stress and anxiety in non-verbal children who may frequently experience frustration due to the inability to express their basic needs and wants.”

When Sue Bransky, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist at Advanced Physical Therapy and Massage in Iowa City, performed massage therapies on a teenage boy who has autism, she noticed positive results.

“His behaviors were a lot calmer after therapy,” said Bransky, who performed craniosacral therapy, soft-tissue mobilization, and myofascial release on the boy.

Like therapeutic horseback riding, massage therapy has not been proven to treat autism, but both therapies alleviate symptoms.

“It may not cure it by any means,” Bransky said. “But it can help.”

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