CLEMSON — A Clemson University psychology lecturer and several undergraduate students are trying to find out if compression clothing can affect the behavior of children with autism by reducing stimulatory behavior.

Jennifer Bisson and a Creative Inquiry team of undergraduate students are working with Applied Behavioral Analysis providers in the Upstate to investigate the effectiveness of compression clothing on therapy outcomes.

Children in the therapy sessions wear compression clothing, which is form-fitting clothing made from a spandex-type material that is often worn by athletes. The researchers predict that this clothing may alter or reduce stimulatory behavior, the repetitive speech or physical movements individuals with autism often exhibit when under or overstimulated.

The team videotapes 10 therapy sessions for each participant and later “codes” incidents of stimulatory behavior — often referred to as “stimming”— with and without compression clothing. According to Bisson, the data will eventually reveal the effectiveness of compression clothing, which may have a calming effect on any individual wearing it. Bisson said anecdotal results so far are encouraging.

“We have gotten positive feedback from parents and therapists,” Bisson said. “We don’t think compression clothing could ever be seen as a total solution, but as a complement to therapy; it may act as a sort of white noise these kids can use to mask other sensory distractions.”

Bisson and Clemson alumna Olivia Batson started the Creative Inquiry project at Clemson in fall 2014 after discussing their shared interest in pursuing research on reducing stimulatory behavior in children with autism that limits or impairs everyday functioning. Bisson hypothesized that compression clothing would help children focus their attention and reduce stimulatory behavior.

She was led to this hypothesis because of the work of Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University and world-renowned autism spokeswoman. Grandin’s research related to deep pressure stimulation and its positive effects on children with autism revealed to Bisson a possible link between compression clothing and similar, positive effects.

“Children stim for many reasons and at times they are doing so to indicate or alleviate the negative experience they’re having,” Bisson said. “We hope that the data will tell us whether or not compression clothing affects the incidence or duration of stimming.”

Bisson said she and her team owe it to the children and families to engage in thorough research and not jump to conclusions in the process. They are currently working to find more families willing to participate in research. The team videotapes therapy sessions at clinics in Greenville and Spartanburg or during sessions in children’s homes.

Senior Kelsey Bennet (left) and Jennifer Bisson, lecturer in Clemson's psychology department, examine video from an applied behavior analysis therapy session.

Senior Kelsey Bennet (left) and Jennifer Bisson, lecturer in Clemson’s psychology department, examine video from an applied behavior analysis therapy session.
Image Credit: Clemson University

The undergraduate students have become well-acquainted with coding these therapy sessions. Leah Watson and Samantha Simpson, undergraduate psychology majors working on the project, spend a large portion of their time coding video. For each child participant, the team collects more than two hours of video data. The full recordings are then broken into five-second segments and each interval is coded for the presence or absence of praise, redirection and stimulatory behavior.

Although both Watson and Simpson admit the work can be time-consuming, their backgrounds in applied behavior analysis have taught them this kind of analysis can be vitally important to the overall value of the research. They also report being able to pick up on certain behaviors common for children with autism much quicker than when they started on the project.

“We’ve learned about stimming in class, but this research has provided so much practical experience,” Simpson said. “I can pick up on a lot more of the small signs and behaviors that I might have missed otherwise.”

All of the undergraduates working with Bisson pursued positions on the research team because of an interest in autism. While Watson and Simpson both hope to continue with autism research or work with individuals with autism in the future, senior Kelsey Bennett had a very personal reason for wanting to participate.

Behavioral therapists record applied behavior analysis therapy sessions with participants, which are later coded by Bisson’s research team.

Behavioral therapists record applied behavior analysis therapy sessions with participants, which are later coded by Bisson’s research team.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Bennett’s mother is a special education teacher and her brother was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder so she’s familiar with and passionate about the population she hopes to continue working with. She is driven to learn more about why her brother behaves in the way he does, but she’s mindful not to rush any step of the research process.

“I want to keep pushing forward and get more information and get to data analysis,” Bennett said, “but we have to make sure we’re doing things correctly and remaining ethical. We have to remind ourselves that even the steps that seem small are the things that make our research thorough and excellent.”

Currently, Bisson and her students are a third of the way through the project. With data collected from 10 participants, they still have a long way to go. The team has to rely on word of mouth and willing participants, and for ethical reasons they can’t rely on doctors to provide possible participants.

Meanwhile, compression clothing is already being touted as an aid for individuals with autism while there is little-to-no research in existence that supports its use. Bisson hopes that her team’s research can fill that void in information.

“Right now, marketing compression clothing for this use is like marketing snake oil,” Bisson said. “In order to say definitively that it helps or doesn’t requires time-intensive, evidence-based research.”