A Chinese Medicine Approach to Sensory Processing Disorders in Children With and Without Autism

“Job One” of infancy and early childhood is organizing the countless sensations that supply the developing brain with information about the child’s own body and the outside world. Physical, emotional, and intellectual development depend upon accurate interpretation of this sensory information. The terms “sensory integration” or “sensory processing” describe this organization of sensation by the nervous system.

The tactile system processes the sense of touch and is the first sensory system to develop. Through daily holding, feeding, dressing, grooming, and playing, caregivers provide babies with a wealth of sensory stimulation. Frequent, responsive touch activates physiological responses (in both caregiver and baby) vital for establishing the infant-caregiver bond that becomes the foundation for self-regulation and social-emotional development. During the first years of life, touch is the most important sensation for social connection and self-regulation.

When the tactile system does not work well, children often experience discomfort with clothing, grooming, and/or food textures; difficulty managing behaviors; and social-emotional delays. Such challenges are severe in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Studies show that almost all children with ASD have abnormal processing of tactile and other sensory information. Children without ASD may also have sensory processing difficulties, which are usually less severe.

Qigong Sensory Training for Sensory Processing Disorders

A new touch-based intervention addresses many features of childhood sensory processing disorders and can improve related self-regulation, social-emotional, sleep, and digestive functions. This innovative protocol, Qigong Sensory Training (QST), uses a holistic approach based in Chinese medicine. QST is a parent-delivered tactile treatment comprised of 12 specific steps that are administered for about 15 minutes daily over the child’s clothing. Though QST research has focused on children with ASD, preliminary evidence indicates that other children who struggle with sensory challenges benefit from a similar QST protocol. Although many children require an adjustment period before they are comfortable during the QST protocol, as the child’s tactile processing improves this daily time together becomes relaxing for both parent and child.

Because the QST technique is most effective when adjusted to the child’s responses, and because children may be uncomfortable at the beginning of the treatment, parents can benefit from support during the first months of the intervention. The Qigong Sensory Training Institute trains and certifies individuals as QST therapists for that purpose. While caregivers who have a close emotional link with the child are best suited to do the daily QST, research indicates that most families achieve best results by working with a certified QST therapist. It should be noted that QST is not advised when children have uncontrolled seizures, are starting other intensive treatments, use certain medications, or when the parent’s hands lack sensitivity.

Research Supporting QST

Over the past decade, the Qigong Sensory Training Institute has published 14 increasingly rigorous research reports examining children with ASD. Two additional published studies focused on children with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Studies were funded by partners such as the US Department of Health and Human Services Maternal and Child Health Bureau. For a study published in 2015, 103 preschool children with autism were randomly assigned to a QST treatment or a control group. After five months of treatment, the QST group showed much greater improvements in overall autism severity, sensory processing, self-regulation, receptive language, and parenting stress measures. Expressive language, social, and daily living skills improved similarly in both groups. Participating parents commented that QST gave them a sense of empowerment, strengthened the parent-child bond, supported overall child development, and was convenient to implement.

QST provides an economical, empowering, and stress-reducing option for families of children who have sensory challenges. In addition, QST is often easier to implement than traditional sensory interventions. When asked about the QST program, a father of a 4-year old stated: “I am really amazed by the overall experience. My son appears to be more focused, more engaged, more verbal, and willing to follow commands much easier. His speech has improved tremendously.” Things this father liked most about QST were its “adaptability, easy to implement, and how easy it is to make part of a daily routine.” After only six weeks in the QST program, a mother of a 26-month old wrote: “It has been good. I feel that it has been very helpful. Tantrums have decreased, he is getting less sensitive to touch (like wiping face and hands), he is speaking more words, and he is starting to get into a regular sleep pattern.”

If your child struggles with being touched or groomed, tolerating clothing or food textures, self-soothing, or engaging with their environment, Qigong Sensory Training may be a wise choice for your family. The website www.qsti.org provides extensive information about QST, including research articles, books, videos, and a list of certified QST therapists.

JoAnn Kennedy, OTD, MS, OTR/L has been a pediatric occupational therapist for over 30 years and recently earned certification as a QST Therapist. Her private occupational therapy practice in Fairfax, VA specializes in a family-centered approach to sensory processing disorders in children. She can be reached at [email protected]

Orit Tal-Atzili, OTD, OTR/L has been a pediatric occupational therapist for 20 years. She practices at the Montgomery County Infants and Toddlers Program in Maryland, where she recently completed, as part of her OT doctorate degree, a QST pilot project with promising results.

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