'Sensory Integration Therapies' Lack Evidence, AAP Says

The insurance situation is just one of the things that proponents of sensory processing disorder hope to change. They have pushed for the inclusion of sensory processing disorder in the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, expected to be released next year. The DSM is considered to be the authoritative compendium of psychiatric disorders, and a place in its pages would mean that sensory processing disorder would become an official diagnosis. By extension, sensory-integration therapies would get a much-needed boost in credibility.

Whether or not the AAP's policy statement will undermine those efforts remains to be seen. Miller said she has already been told that the DSM-5 will not list SPD as a new diagnosis. She believes that it will get a mention as a sub-criterion for autism spectrum disorder. But what she is holding out hope for now is that it will be included at the end of the manual, as a novel diagnosis in need of research.

Miller said that she does not believe that the AAP recommendation will necessarily hurt the chances that SPD will find its way in as a novel diagnosis. And she said that right now, she will take any additional placement SPD can get.

"We would be thrilled to see it represented in any way, which would be a foot in the door," she said. "Right now, it is very difficult to get funded by NIH, because it is not in the DSM. It's very difficult to get it into the DSM, because there is no funding for research. It's a catch-22."

Even the authors of the new AAP recommendations appear to agree that more solid research on SPD would be a welcome development. And Zimmer said that despite the fact that one of the new recommendations explicitly urges caution with sensory integration therapy, she does not feel that this means the approach has no place in treatment.

"Certainly I think sensory-based therapies can be helpful," she said. "But these treatments have to be done on an individualized basis. It should be one component of a more global treatment program."

She said parents should consult their pediatricians if they are considering sensory-based therapies, and they should set out a specific period of time with a specific goal in mind -- a measurable reduction in episodes involving behaviors associated with oversensitivity, for example. She said that parents should then monitor their child's progress to see if these goals are being met. If not, she said, treatment should be discontinued.

"I don't think the academy is suggesting that [sensory-based therapies] should stop," she said. "But they should be one small component of a larger treatment approach."

Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News' chief health and medical editor and a pediatrician himself, agreed.

"It is so important that parents talk with their child's doctor openly about treatment options," he said. "Sometimes, there are treatments that lack scientific evidence because they are new and innovative. As long as they are safe, it may be worth undertaking in particular situations. However, as studies are done, doctors need to be open with their patients to let them know the findings."

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