What is holding therapy?
Holding therapy involves a person, usually a mother, holding her autistic child tightly in a way that ensures eye contact between them. The aim is to deliberately provoke distress in the child, until the child needs and accepts comfort.
Who is holding therapy for?
Supporters of holding therapy claim it can be used with autistic children aged up to 18 years.
What is holding therapy used for?
It’s claimed that holding therapy improves the relationship between child and parent, and that it increases the child’s capacity to relate to others.
Where does holding therapy come from?
The use of holding therapy for autism is based on a theory published in 1983 by a Dutch scientist, Niko Tinbergen. This theory was based on Tinbergen’s observations of birds.
What is the idea behind holding therapy?
Holding therapy is based on the theory that autism is caused by the lack of a bond between a mother and child. Supporters of holding therapy claim that this lack of bond creates an emotional imbalance called ‘anxiety-dominated emotional imbalance’. This imbalance stops the child being able to learn from interactions with others and leads to social withdrawal.
It’s claimed that the mother-child bond can be repaired by forcing a new emotional connection between the mother and her child. To do this, the therapy provokes distress in the child and then provides the needed comfort.
We don’t yet know exactly what causes autism. It’s suspected that there might be several causes including brain development and genetic factors. But we can say that autism isn’t caused by anything that parents do or don’t do while raising their children.
This means there’s no scientific basis for holding therapy.
What does holding therapy involve?
There are three stages in the holding therapy sequence.
During the first stage (confrontation), the mother and child position themselves so they are physically close and have eye contact – this is forced if necessary. This leads to stage two (rejection), where the child might fight against the holding. When the child gives up fighting, the third stage (resolution) is reached. It’s claimed that at this stage a strong and enduring bond has developed between mother and child.
The costs of holding therapy depend on whether parents use a trained therapist and how much the therapist charges. There might be additional costs associated with purchasing support materials.
Does holding therapy work?
This therapy is extremely controversial and the theory behind the therapy is unproven. There’s no high-quality research evidence to support the claims that holding therapy is effective as a treatment for autistic people.
The American Psychological Association says that you shouldn’t use holding therapy. This is because it has the potential to harm children and there’s also no evidence that it benefits children.
Who practises holding therapy?
Supporters of this therapy suggest that it should be performed by the mother and her child, with support from a therapist trained in holding therapy.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
You don’t need any training to do the therapy, but you should be directly supported by a trained therapist.
Where can you find a practitioner?
If you’re interested in holding therapy, you should talk about it with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk about it with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood early intervention (ECEI) coordinator or NDIS local area coordinator (LAC), if you have one.
There are many therapies for autism. They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for autistic children takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.