How Environmental Enrichment Works as a Therapy for Autism

The Science

The brain has the incredible ability to adapt, heal, and grow.

Our unique sensory enrichment therapy, based on the environmental enrichment field of research, unlocks these abilities and prompts the process of brain plasticity–utilizing the power of neurogenesis and dendritic arborization.

Neurogenesis:
[neu·ro·gen·e·sis]
• the process of generating new nerve cells.

Dendritic arborization: 
[den-drit-ik ahr-ber-uh-zey-shuhn]
• the process of “growing” an existing nerve cell (increasing its number of dendrites) resulting in an expanded capacity to communicate with other nerve cells.

Brain Plasticity for Autism

With more connections your brain is a lot stronger and able to do a lot more

What we do know…

Through the processes of neurogenesis and dendritic arborization, the brain can change neural pathways and synapses at any stage of life. The brain’s ability to make these changes is called brain plasticity.

With stronger connections and more brand new nerve cells, the brain is able to receive and interpret more signals more accurately. It can do more, more quickly, more easily. Since the brain controls just about every aspect of life, as its capabilities expand, so will your child’s. He will become increasingly confident as his/her life becomes gradually easier and more comfortable and as he feels his skills expand.

It is common for people doing Mendability to see increases in self-awareness, communication and social skills, and a decrease in anxiety, sleep and feeding problems.

Prompting natural healing

Environmental Enrichment
and the Brain

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine believe that brain plasticity can be triggered by sensory enrichment–through olfactory, visual, tactile, motor systems, etc.

Sensory or environmental enrichment therapy was influenced by the breakthrough work of Prof. Mark Rosenzweig, University of California, Berkeley, who showed that early sensory stimulation increases the surface of the cortex, the number of dendrites and the volume of neurotransmitters in rats.

Prof. Rosenzweig was one of the first scientists to demonstrate neuroplasticity, the notion that experiences can produce changes in the function and structural wiring of the brain.

Further studies by neurobiologists now show that the social and cognitive abilities of an individual depend heavily on the levels of neurotransmitters.

Moreover, research now shows that environmental enrichment can impact the levels of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

This work is an example of the kind of impact simple sensory activities can have on brain function.

Other researchers who have influenced sensory enrichment therapy and shown the impact of simple sensory activities include: Professor Michael Meaney at McGill University on the link between gentle touch, serotonin and anxiety; and the work of Professor Jon Horvitz, currently at City College New York, who paired visual experiences, dopamine and mood.

Inspiring quotes from science journals

Researchers have shown that cells destined to become neurons travel from the ventricles to the olfactory bulbs, a pair of structures that receives input from odor-sensing cells in the nose.

– Fred H. Gage, Scientific American Sep 2003 p. 47
The combination of odor and tactile stimulation, which allows an olfactory preference to be formed, induces a prolonged increase in DA [dopamine] which peaks at about 400% of baseline.

– Coopersmith, R.; Weihmuller, F.B. Kirstein, C.L.; Marshall, J.F.; Leon, M. “Extracellular dopamine increases in the neonatal olfactory bulb during odor preference training.” Brain Res. 564(1):149-53; 1991.
…we show that significantly more new neurons exist in the dentate gyrus of mice exposed to an enriched environment compared with littermates housed in standard cages.

– Kempermann G, Kuhn HG, Gage FH. “More Hippocampal Neurons in Adult Mice Living in an Enriched Environment.” Nature 386, no. 6624 (1997): 493-95.


We conclude that an extensively enriched environment prevents old rats from the aging-associated impairment of spatial cognition, synaptic plasticity and nitric oxide production.

– Arnaiz SL, D’Amico G, Paglia N, Arismendi M, Basso N, del Rosario Lores Arnaiz M. “Enriched Environment, Nitric Oxide Production and Synaptic Plasticity Prevent the Aging-Dependent Impairment of Spatial Cognition.” Molecular Aspects of Medicine 25, no. 1-2 (2004): 91-101.

Selected Bibliography

SEE FULL LIST OF RESEARCH ARTICLES

Coopersmith, R.; Weihmuller, F.B.; Kirstein, C.L.; Marshall, J.F.; Leon, M.  ‘Extracellular dopamine increases in the neonatal olfactory bulb during odor preference training.’ Brain Res. 564(1):149-53; 1991.

Diamond, M.C.; Krech, D. and Rosenzweig, M.R. ‘Effects of an Enriched Environment on the Histology of Rat Cerebral Cortex.’ Journal of Comparative Neurology 123 (1964): 111-20.

Woo, C.C.; Hingco, E.; Hom, C.; Lott, I. and Leon, M. ‘Environmental enrichment as a potentially effective autism treatment.’ Program No. 561.21. 2010 Neuroscience Meeting Planner. San Diego, CA: Society for Neuroscience, 2010. Online.

Kempermann, G.; Kuhn, H.G. and Gage, F.H. ‘More Hippocampal Neurons in Adult Mice Living in an Enriched Environment.’ Nature 386, no. 6624 (1997): 493-95.

What makes Sensory Enrichment therapeutic?

A stimulus needs to be interesting, focused and gentle in order for it to have a therapeutic effect on the brain.

Sometimes just the fact that a stimulus is focused can make it interesting. Let’s look at breathing, for example. We breathe while simultaneously completing multiple tasks–it’s something we do without noticing we’re doing it. But, if we decide to focus entirely on our breathing, in spite of it being a completely normal activity, it captures the brain’s attention.

In addition to being focused and attention-grabbing, a stimulus must be gentle in order for it to be therapeutic.

Sensory information that is too harsh or abrupt will exceed the level at which the brain will therapeutically process it. Instead, the abrasive input will trigger defense mechanisms.

Mendability exercises provide the brain with the interesting, focused, and gentle experiences it needs in order to be therapeutic.

The corpus callosum is typically smaller in children with autism

The corpus callosum is the structure deep in the brain that connects the right and left sides of the brain, coordinating the functions of the two halves.

What do the exercises look like?

The Water Game is an example of a game that encourages communication between the two sides of the brain.

Your child dips one hand in a bowl of warm water and the other hand in a bowl of cool water. After a few seconds, the bowls are switched and each hand is dipped into a new temperature of water. This process is repeated four times.

This exercise causes signals to be sent from the left hand to the right side of the brain and from the right hand to the left side of the brain.

Since these signals are sent at the same time, they cross paths in the middle of the brain on what is known as the communication bridge. In doing so, these signals increase the bridge’s capacity to quickly process signals. This is vital in developing strong and reliable complex brain communication.

Many children suffering from the symptoms of autism experience a bottleneck on the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. As the bridge’s capacity to process and circulate signals grows, the greater the capacity the brain will have to function, learn, grow and overcome the symptoms of autism.

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Sign up to watch our latest webinar: - 8 most important things the latest clinical study teaches us about Sensory Enrichment, - 2 Sensory Enrichment techniques you can use at home today to help your child with autism

8 most important things the latest clinical study teaches us about Sensory Enrichment

2 Sensory Enrichment techniques you can use at home today to help your child with autism

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56 thoughts on “How Environmental Enrichment Works as a Therapy for Autism

  1. stephanie kodeck

    My son has limited verbal skills and limited understanding of directions – for instance – The activity in the short video you show would be too complex for him to follow. Do you offer adaptations for exercies for children who have limited communication and comprehension? Do you offer exercises based upon skills and developmental levels?

    Reply
    1. Kim Post author

      Yes, Stephanie, the program is customized not only to age, developmental level, and current challenges but also on where the brain is ready to make improvements. We believe this is the best way of allowing the brain to take control of its repair schedule.

      Mendability’s patented expert system helps determine which of the hundreds of Sensory Enrichment protocols are the most effective for the person receiving therapy, so you can be sure that the therapy you are doing is the best use of your time.

      With Mendability you will be doing two therapy sessions per day. Each session takes about 10 minutes, typically. Even when both parents work, there is usually enough time to fit in Sensory Enrichment Therapy into your daily routines.

      Every two weeks your exercises will have to change. You will use our online expert system to determine which exercises will be the best ones to do next. You will always be running the most up-to-date program with your son.

      With Mendability you will be assigned to a therapist who will coach you through the therapy. You can share videos, exchange emails and schedule phone appointments within days. Where else can you have such easy and frequent access to a therapist?

      Reply
    1. Kim Post author

      Hello Heather,

      There is a lot of overlap between Sensory Enrichment Therapy and the work that OT’s do. This is why we hire mainly OT’s and it only takes a few days for us to train them.

      One of the things Sensory Enrichment Therapy will do is help the brain with better processing and “integration” of sensory inputs.

      Mendabilitys put together for the clients a customized set of short sensory activities, designed to trigger activity and growth in targeted brain functions. Which functions we target depends on where the client is ready, and where we believe his brain is becoming more active, more ready for activity and growth. As the brain grows and repairs itself in more and more brain functions, the challenges and symptoms start to diminish.

      Temple Grandin identifies three of the several unique aspects of Sensory Enrichment Therapy.

      “Environmental enrichment is an innovative therapy that is easy and simple to do. It may help many children.
      Environmental enrichment has three innovative features:
      1. Always changing the stimulus
      2. Stimulating two senses simultaneously
      3. One of the sense is always either smell or touch”

      Hope this helps paint a picture.

      Reply
    1. Kim Post author

      Hello, Denise.

      The tools to do the therapy are available online. First you signup for a Mendability account. Then you will be assigned to one of our therapists who will coach you through the program. Then you will start completing your first baseline questionnaire to describe your child.

      Within a day or so, you should be able to start doing Sensory Enrichment Therapy in your home.

      Reply
  2. Ana Criado

    I saw those videos and I’m interesting how to get services from you guys because I have an 18 years old, he has diagnoses of autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, combined type.

    Reply
    1. Kim Post author

      Hi Ana,

      You can get started with the therapy easily:

      1- Enrol and signup for a Mendability account
      2- Complete the first baseline questionnaire for your son
      3- Connect with your Mendability therapist for your first training session

      You can also reverse steps 3 and 2 if you want your Mendability therapist to help you with the questionnaire until you feel confident.

      From then on you will be given customized sets of exercises to do with your son every day. There are 2 sessions per day. Each session takes about 10 minutes, typically.

      Reply
  3. Jody

    Brain balance told us that our son’s brain was not equally developed, that one side was severely under developed and he still had all eight of his primitive reflexes. Zac just started Brain Highways to address his primitive reflexes. Do you incorporate movements to address primitive reflexes as well, or does your approach just address sensory issues?

    Reply
    1. Kim Post author

      Yes, it is common for one or a few primitive reflexes to be still present when the brain has not fully developed in an area. It’s one of the ways that our chief scientist uses to evaluate development, etc.

      Sensory Enrichment Therapy uses all sensory fields to help activate the mechanisms of brain plasticity and repair. This therapy will of course address sensory issues, but it will also help improve practically all other brain functions as well, from sleep to social skills, mood regulation, motor control, learning, etc.

      To answer your question about movement. one way we stimulate the proprioceptive or the vestibular systems is with movement but, we don’t use movements to address primitive reflexes directly. With Mendability, we look for the best way to trigger repair in a particular brain function and in many cases it’s via a different brain function. Instead of stimulating a brain function directly when it is not functioning optimally, we prompt a surge of activity and repair in the area by stimulating a “strong neighbor.”

      With Mendability, we also look for the best brain function to repair at any given time. Rather than impose a repair schedule, we “listen” to the child. By monitoring change in him, we can determine which brain functions are becoming more active, and we focus the next therapy session there. By working on areas that the brain is ready to work on, we can achieve progress more quickly and the repair happens more naturally.

      Reply
  4. Sameer Hajela

    Just want to know – what sort of resources are required for activities/ exercises.
    Whether this program include any kit – where required resources are put together?

    Reply
    1. Kim Post author

      Hi Sameer,

      The therapy can be done with materials from the home. It was part of the design from the beginning, both for convenience and to keep the cost low for families.

      Scents are usually the hardest items to gather for the therapy. You can use anything that smells great to your child. It can be his favorite toothpaste, jam, vanilla extract, freshly baked bread, etc. When you sign up, you will be assigned to a therapist who will coach you through the program, including giving you ideas about household items that can be used for the therapy.

      Reply
    1. Kim Post author

      Yes, Rebecca, you can access Mendability wherever you have access to the Internet. This is a program that you access to do therapy at home with your child.

      For support and training, you’ll want to make arrangements with your assigned coach/therapist to work around the time difference. We have several families in Australia doing Mendability at the moment. The best time usually is in the morning for you, which is the afternoon for us.

      Reply

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