Controversial auditory therapy may be beneficial for kids with autism

Any parent or teacher of a child with autism will tell you the heartbreak they feel when they call a child's name and he or she doesn't respond. This most basic social interaction is often a challenge for children on the autism spectrum and in turn, more complex social exchanges seem insurmountable.

"I'm less worried about his academic skills. I want him to be able to be in a room with people and like being there," said one parent of a child with autism that I know. "I want people to like having him there."

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This desire for engagement is common for families raising children with autism, whose social and attention deficits often account for a significant amount of their challenges.

Parents have been seeking therapies to increase attention and interaction for years. One treatment continues to remain a part of the conversation today.

Auditory integration training, or AIT, was developed in the 1950s by Dr. Guy Berard, an otolaryngologist, in Annecy, France. Originally designed to improve hearing loss or other hearing impairments, Berard considered hearing imbalances and poor auditory processing skills a contributing factor to academic, social, and behavioral challenges such as learning disabilities, autism and attention deficit disorder. He felt the disorders could be improved using AIT.

Other models of AIT exist, but the Berard method remains the most popular. Berard developed the AudioKinetron and the Earducator™, devices that deliver  music at specific frequencies through headphones. The regimen includes two, 30-minute sessions, three hours apart each day over the course of 10 days. A one- or two-day break may be taken after the first five days. Candidates must be at least 3 years of age and may have a diagnosis of autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), ADHD, central auditory processing disorder, or other learning disabilities or processing disorders.

Audio tests are administered before, during and after the treatment to monitor and assess progress and make necessary adjustments as needed.

The goal of AIT in individuals with autism is to improve auditory distortions, delays or sensitivities. The theory is if processing functions better, an individual will be able to sustain increased attention, which in turn allows greater opportunity for awareness, comprehension and engagement.

Like many treatments for autism, there are both supporters and critics of AIT. A 1994 study by Bernard Rimland and Stephen Edelson assessed the affect of AIT on 445 adults and children with autism. Though the researchers noted no difference in the results of auditory tests between subjects, many parents reported a decrease in problem behaviors after AIT intervention.

Critics of this intervention say, although studies have been done, there is not enough evidence to show that AIT definitively increases attention, focus, and interaction in individuals with autism. The Autism Speaks website also cites this lack of sufficient documentation under its 100 Day Kit for parents of newly-diagnosed children.

Parents of children with autism continue to foster their child's social and emotional growth as a key component to their success. Using Auditory integration training may be one way to do just that, though it seems a lack of research-based conclusions leaves many on the fence about this decades-old treatment.