An innovative method to treat children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder attempts to turn their symptoms into strengths.
Dr. Laurence Sugarman, a pediatrician and researcher at Rochester Institute of Technology has developed a treatment method that teaches affected children how to control their psychophysiology and behavior using computerized biofeedback and clinical hypnosis.
The methods are tied to learning to self-regulate the autonomic nervous system —including the fight or flight mechanism — that, for many people with autism, is an engine idling on high.
“Teaching kids with autism spectrum disorder skills in turning down their fight or flight response and turning up the opposite may fundamentally allow them to be more socially engaging, decrease some of the need for cognitive rigidity and repetitive behaviors and, more importantly, allow them to feel better,” said Sugarman.
Sugarman’s model is presented in an article, “Symptoms as Solutions: Hypnosis and Biofeedback for Autonomic Regulation in Autism Spectrum Disorder” published in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis.
The model underlies three ongoing projects at the center involving different age groups: teaching coping skills to students with anxiety or autism; developing a computer-based role-playing game using autonomous biofeedback for teenagers; and creating a new service and research program for family members with autism.
The latter, called the Parent Effectiveness Program, began this fall and will repeat in the spring. The study trains parents of young children diagnosed with autism and measures results of their training on the behaviors of their affected children.
Sugarman developed his method in response to the rise in autism spectrum disorders over the last 30 years. Instead of trying to change the symptoms associated with autism, his approach recognizes the symptoms as an effort to self-regulate inner turmoil.
The treatment integrates autonomic biofeedback and clinical hypnosis into his therapy. Sensors attached to his patients measure respiration, perspiration, heart rate and variation, and blood flow/circulation.
Children with autism learn to correlate the signals and visual representations displayed on the computer screen (the “Dynamic Feedback Signal Set”) with their emotions.
During therapy sessions, the children practice changing their feedback response and learn to manipulate their own internal wiring.
Sugarman uses clinical hypnosis to generalize and internalize feedback techniques —discerning situations and controlling their responses — into their daily lives.
“Hypnosis is a 250-year-old Western study of how social influence and internal physiology can be changed,” he said. “Mindfulness is a slice of this.”
“We think we can make a big difference for young people with autism spectrum disorder,” Sugarman said. “The need is there.”