Although emotional dysregulation is not a specific criterion for diagnosing an individual with autism (ASD), those who are on the spectrum tend to be more likely to lack emotional self-regulation skills. This does not, however, mean that individuals with ASD cannot learn to self-regulate after being explicitly taught. A method of calming oneself that is becoming more widely known and used by professionals and the general population is a technique called tapping.
What Exactly is Tapping?
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) tapping is a research-based, alternative, and holistic treatment for physical pain and emotional distress.
“Tapping with the fingertips on specific points on the body, while focusing on negative emotions or physical sensations, helps to calm the nervous system, rewire the brain to respond in healthier ways, and restore the body’s balance of energy” (TheTappingSolution).
This idea of tapping can also be referred to as Acupoint Stimulation, which is simply applying pressure on particular acupuncture points in order to notice a specific outcome. Surprisingly, the earliest research found on tapping seems to be from the 1970’s, where Roger Callahan designed a set of acupressure (tapping) protocols designed to help patients with the self-regulation of psychological disorders (Feinstein, 2012).
Since then, there have been several other studies conducted on this Emotional Freedom Technique, including a broad meta-study reviewing 3,000 studies of tapping techniques (Psychology Today).
See Also: 5 Goals of EMDR Therapy: EMDR Benefits
The Benefits of Tapping
In Feinstein’s meta-analysis, the efficacy of tapping was reviewed for the following disorders and issues: PTSD, Anxiety, Fear of Public Speaking, Test-Taking Anxiety, Specific Phobias, Depression, Pain and Illness, Weight Control, and Athletic Performance.
“These studies [meta-analysis] have consistently demonstrated strong effect sizes and other positive statistical results that far exceed chance after relatively few treatment sessions. Investigations in more than a dozen countries by independent research teams have all produced similar results. Speculation on the mechanisms involved suggests that tapping on acupoints while a presenting emotional problem is mentally activated rapidly produces desired changes in the neurochemistry involved in that problem“ (Feinstein, 2012).
Another study was conducted around the same time by Dr. Dawson Church in which 83 participants’ cortisol levels (stress hormone) were tested before and after using EFT tapping techniques. Not only did the cortisol levels decrease by an average of 24.39 percent, the average overall stress (based on rating scales) reduced by 50.5 percent. Symptoms of anxiety and depression were also significantly reduced (Church, 2012).
Does Tapping Have a Significant Effect on Those with Autism?
Oftentimes individuals with Autism need sensory stimulation, whether that be via touch, sound, movement, sight, etc. By receiving the stimulation, s/he may be attempting to manage emotions and self-regulate. Certain behaviors in these categories are called stimming; however, stimming isn’t always done appropriately or safely and can cause major disruption at times. For instance if a child with ASD is in a classroom and is banging his or her head on the desk repeatedly, this obviously is a safety concern. If an adult with ASD, who is working in a grocery store, regularly hums and grunts at a loud volume, this can be seen as a disruptive behavior that will not be beneficial to him/her socially or financially if s/he ends up losing the job.
It would benefit those with unsafe or disruptive stimming behaviors to learn a new, more appropriate way of regulating the over-stimulation and their emotions, and tapping is a positive, research-based alternative.
While there is a lack of specific research on the use of tapping with groups of individuals with autism, there is research on the efficacy of tapping in those with anxiety disorders and those who need general relief from emotional distress. Tapping can be used as a simple stress-reduction technique, which many with autism could benefit from. Furthermore, the movements of tapping offer a repetitive stimulating feeling such as stimming does.
“The breadth of populations, settings and delivery methods encompassed [in these studies] provides indication that EFTs effects can be considered generalizable” (Bach, 2018).
The Limitations to Using the Tapping Technique with Those with Autism
The effectiveness of using EFT tapping with those with ASD largely depends on the cognitive development of each individual engaging in the technique. There needs to be a rather high mental capacity for a person to be able to willingly learn the tapping techniques, identify current emotions, make statements about those emotions while tapping, and to then independently follow through with those learned techniques later on when they feel emotionally dysregulated. Tapping may not work effectively in individuals diagnosed with ASD Level 3 due to their more profound verbal and nonverbal deficits.
To show true effectiveness, the individual utilizing the technique needs to consistently use it—and realistically this cannot be monitored by someone else at all times. Tapping is a repetitive practice that literally trains the brain and when only done from time to time, the success rate will be lower compared to someone who uses the technique every time they feel they need it.
It is recommended by professionals to go through a tapping sequence for at least 15 minutes to gain the full positive effects. This could potentially be daunting or difficult for some, especially for a child (The Tapping Solution).
Getting Trained on EFT Tapping
People often look for a quick fix to their problem, although it is not recommended to take tapping lightly or to rush through it. It is recommended to work with a specialist who has been trained professionally on EFT tapping; however, you can find many basic introductory videos for free online.
While an individual with ASD is learning tapping, explicit and repetitive, deliberate practice and gradual release are the most beneficial ways to try to ensure proper use and hopefully success.
Until there is more substantial research out there on the Emotional Freedom Technique that is tapping, in relation to those specifically with autism, there cannot be any conclusive statements made about its effectiveness or a positive correlation made.
Since those with autism often experience high levels of anxiety and tapping has been proven to help decrease anxiety along with other strong emotions, tapping can be a valuable tool to utilize, as it is fairly generalizable.
If an individual is wanting to learn more about EFT tapping for themself or a loved one, discussing it with a professional who has experience in tapping is the best route to take. The EFT International Directory of EFT Practitioners is a good place to start; even if a specific person is not listed on this site, it does not mean that they do not have special training in tapping.
With any new mode of treatment, it is always wise to do research using reliable and valid sources and to speak to a professional.
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