There are many unscientific treatments for autism, but few are as dangerous or ill-informed as the use of “holding therapy.” In theory, holding therapy for autistic kids works by forcing children to bond with their parents or caregivers, repairing supposed damage that was caused by their parents’ inability or refusal to form a healthy attachment. Holding therapy involves restraining a child (sometimes violently) and forcing him to make eye contact or to give and receive affection. This method is not only ineffective; it can be deadly. Here are four reasons to never use holding therapy as a treatment for autism.
1. It’s based on misconceptions and bad science. The use of holding therapy for autism arose in the 1950s, when mothers were almost always blamed for the challenges of their special-needs kids. Psychologists believed that autism happened because of “refrigerator mothers” who weren’t affectionate or interactive with their kids. We now know that “refrigerator” parenting has nothing to do with autism. Most children with autism are parented affectionately and attentively, and the causes of autism are now believed to be entirely, or almost entirely, genetic. Given that the hypothesis behind holding therapy for autism has been proven incorrect, there’s no reason to encourage or use the therapy at all.
2. Holding therapy ignores everything we know about autistic children. The idea that autistic children don’t enjoy being held is a stereotype, and a harmful one, at that. Many autistic children are highly affectionate, often seeking out human contact excessively and inappropriately. There isn’t a reason to force a child into something that she would seek out willingly. We also know that autistic children tend to become very upset by unwanted touches and unwanted eye-contact, and this could actually cause behavioral and developmental regressions.
3. It creates confusion about rules and body contact. Regardless of age, development, or emotional structure, all children need to know the rules for safe touches and contact with other people. A child needs to know that she is not allowed to touch people without their consent, that they cannot touch her without her consent, and that some types of touch (specifically, hitting and sexual contact) are never acceptable. When you restrain an autistic child against her will as part of holding therapy, you tell her that it’s okay for one person to restrain another person and that adults don’t have to respect a child’s personal space. This can set up a dangerous precedent and could lead to the child being abused, or abusing someone else, due to confusion about touching rules.
4. Holding therapy kills children. Many special-needs children have died as a result of injuries incurred from holding therapy. This is probably the most serious and worrisome consequence of holding therapy for autistic children. Children have suffocated, starved, and been physically crushed by adult caregivers who were using holding therapy in a deeply misguided attempt to cure developmental or psychological problems in children. There is no reason to subject children to these dangerous practices because of a flawed and outdated understanding of the needs of autistic children. If you have, or know, a child with autism, contact his pediatrician for help with evidence-based therapies, rather than resorting to holding therapy and other dangerous practices.
More information about holding therapy for autism is available from Research Autism and Psychology Today’s Jean Mercer.