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Does EMDR Benefit a Child with Autism?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an advanced clinical technique that traces its origins back several decades. It is a targeted therapy technique done with a therapist that involves questioning and specific focus on negative memories combined with bilateral stimulation like eye movements and physical taps (and sometimes other movements). It was originally designed to help individuals deal with the overwhelming symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR therapy is thought to facilitate the assessment and processing of traumatic memories or adverse life experiences, moving the patient towards healthier mental and physical response(s) to stressors. In some cases, patients report a cessation of all distress related to a particular memory or thought.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy have eight common phases. Phase one involves a medical history and treatment planning, phase two involves preparation, phase three involves assessment, phases four-seven relate to the actual treatment, and phase eight is the evaluation process. Though the EMDR phases should always be the same, autistic individuals and their neurological differences will require modifications in many of the stages.

In recent years, it has been suggested that EMDR offers potential benefits to children with autism, a condition that is believed to affect 1 in 59 children. Patients who have autism often present with a variety of neurological responses that make processing trauma and stress much more difficult. At times, an autistic patient may process trauma in a way that is even harmful to themself. Current research suggests that EMDR is a workable option for both managing stress disorders in people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and as a basic therapy tool to curb some of the standard symptoms of ASD.

Related resource: Top 25 Online Master’s in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Importance of Individualized Diagnosis and Therapy

For many years Asperger’s, high functioning autism, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), autistic disorder, and childhood disintegrative disorder were all different ways to classify autism. However, in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) combined all disorders under the umbrella term ASD, in which those with an autistic related disorder are classified by levels (1-3) that are reflective of severity. Though you will continue to hear classifications like Asperger’s or high function autism today, these are no longer formally recognized diagnoses by the APA.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, there is no universal therapy or treatment strategy appropriate for all cases of autism. Children and adults should receive a formal assessment and diagnosis from a professional before pursuing a specific course of treatment. While there’s little to lose by exploring EMDR therapy for younger ASD patients, it should be done as part of a broader plan to encourage long-term growth and development. Families and caregivers should make sure that any EMDR or intervention services they pursue are offered by qualified and credentialed professionals.

Addressing Trauma and Stress in ASD Patients

Individuals with autism are just as prone to experiencing traumatic events or succumbing to external stress factors as anyone else. However, ASD disorders often coincide with both a lack of social skills and behavioral control, which can make it harder for an individual to appropriately address and deal with stressors. As EMDR has proven itself to be a relatively safe and effective therapy for both adults and children, it has become increasingly applied to help young ASD patients overcome undue psychological stress associated with prior traumatic experiences and as a treatment for common symptoms of ASD.

As you consider EMDR therapy for your child, you may find also find yourself asking “does it reduce symptoms?” According to the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services, some recent case studies show a significant improvement in patient symptoms associated with PTSD following a course of EMDR treatment. But further research is required to verify both its efficacy on a broader sample size or to sanction it as a standard of care for all autistic patients.

EMDR as Part of Conventional Autism Therapy

Aside from its conventional use as a therapeutic aid in dealing with trauma and stress disorders, EMDR may also be able to help autistic patients overcome some intrinsic aspects of their disorder. This includes symptoms like inconsistent eye contact, poor ability to look or listen to people, inappropriate facial expressions and movement, unusual movements and tone of voice, and failure or slow response to attempts to gain attention.

Some of these inappropriate social behaviors are often linked to certain memories or thought patterns, similar to those that impact non-autistic individuals suffering from traumatic disorders. Since EMDR therapy focuses on managing these types of psychological habits, it has the potential to offer therapists an entirely new tool for addressing autistic symptoms, hopefully leading to increased verbal abilities, improved social interaction, improved self-regulation, and a healthier state of general function.

Continuous Assessment and Program Development

While available research suggests that EMDR could have significant positive implications for younger ASD patients, there are still a lot of unknowns about long-term results. Because of the nature of spectrum disorders, it is difficult to say conclusively that positive results in a large sample size mean the therapy will benefit all children. Much like an initial ASD assessment and diagnosis, treatment, therapies, and progress must constantly be assessed on an individualized basis. Therapists who continually incorporate emerging techniques and strategies must keep careful track of each patient’s progress towards established treatment goals and take an active role in educating families or caregivers about results.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing have a lot of appeal for therapists focused on patients with ASD. Through relatively simple client interactions, EMDR allows for the manipulation of a person’s physiological and psychological state through the consistent application of basic scientific principles Methodical and responsible EMDR therapy can be beneficial to a variety of children with autism, offering potential benefits that are both long-lasting and foundational to continued positive development in both thought and behavioral patterns.

ABA Programs Guide

Updated March 2020

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