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New research shows medical clowns can help autistic kids

Groundbreaking research from Ziv Hospital shows medical clowns help autistic children learn to communicate better.

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Groundbreaking research done in Tzfat's Ziv Medical Center on integrating autistic children with their normally developing peers showed using medical clowns improves autistic children's abilities to communicate and form personal connections.

The new research was presented at a conference held by the Israeli Society for Autistic Children. It was done in the Ziv Medical Center's Early Childhood Development Center. Dr. Ori Yitzkar, who runs psychiatric services for children and youth, oversaw the research. Also involved were Dr. Eileen Lee, an autism researcher; occupational therapist Orna Gavrieli; and Shoshi Ofir, a medical clown. The research was funded by a grant from the Magi Fund.

"There are not yet any proven treatments which allow for such a wide variety of stimulation and allow the child to interact with normally developing children. The unusual results of this research should prompt us to make options for this type of treatment more available," Dr. Yitzkar said.

"What's unique about this research is it integrates normally developing and autistic children, as well as medical clowning. This is a combination which has never been tried, anywhere in the world," Gavrieli said.

The research included five children with autism or ASD, who attended twelve weekly meetings of thirty minutes each. Each meeting began with the autistic child meeting a medical clown. During the course of the meeting, a normally developing child of the same age joined the pair.

The research integrated three different methods, and the results, which were overwhelmingly positive, were examined both during the research and afterwards.

Low functioning autistic children, some of them who could barely speak, were able to connect socially and emotionally to the normal children. According to parents' reports, the sessions continued to positively influence both home life and the child's abilities to interact with other children even after the experiment had ended. Parents also reported the children were significantly less fearful, dealt much better with sensory overload, and initiated contact with children they had never met before.

The normal children also benefited from the experiment, which improved their thinking skills and aided in personality development.

One mother said, "Once we would pass S.'s house, and it was just another house. Today, any time we pass her house my daughter gets off her bike and goes to open the gate and look for her friend (who participated in the research). They've formed a real bond... She goes there because that's where her friend lives. She's learned to be a friend. When we go places and she sees other children, she approaches them in a way that doesn't turn them off. Instead of withdrawing, she joins the group."

"This story shows how the success we saw during our research has influenced the children's everyday lives. Those who understand how autism works will know this is something completely unexpected and which can not be taken for granted," Ofir said.

One person out of every hundred is autistic, and boys are four times more likely to suffer from ASD than girls. Autism, which is a social disorder, affects neurological development and a person's ability to interact with his surroundings.

Autism can be diagnosed from the age of six months and up. The earlier it is diagnosed, the higher the child's chance of developing normally.