Background: Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are increasing in prevalence. Children with ASDs present with impairments in social interactions; communication; restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, or activities; as well as motor delays. Hydrotherapy is used as a treatment for children with disabilities and motor delays. There have been no systematic reviews conducted on the effectiveness of hydrotherapy in children with ASDs.
Aim: We aimed to examine the effectiveness of hydrotherapy on social interactions and behaviors in the treatment of children with ASDs.
Methods: A systematic search of Cochrane, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Embase, MEDLINE®, and Academic Search Premier was conducted. Studies of participants, aged 3-18 years, with ASDs at a high-functioning level were included if they utilized outcome measures assessing social interactions and behaviors through questionnaire or observation. A critical appraisal, using the McMaster Critical Review Form for Quantitative Studies, was performed to assess methodological quality.
Results: Four studies of varying research design and quality met the inclusion criteria. The participants in these studies were aged between 3-12 years of age. The duration of the intervention ranged from 10-14 weeks, and each study used varied measures of outcome. Overall, all the studies showed some improvements in social interactions or behaviors following a Halliwick-based hydrotherapy intervention.
Interpretation: Few studies have investigated the effect of hydrotherapy on the social interactions and behaviors of children with ASDs. While there is an increasing body of evidence for hydrotherapy for children with ASDs, this is constrained by small sample size, lack of comparator, crude sampling methods, and the lack of standardized outcome measures. Hydrotherapy shows potential as a treatment method for social interactions and behaviors in children with ASDs.
Keywords: aquatic therapy; evidence-based practice; pediatrics; secondary research.