At a glance: Holding therapy
Type of therapy
Other
The claim
Cures autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Suitable for
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) aged up to 18 years
Research rating

Find out more about this rating system in our FAQs.

Research shows this approach is ineffective or can be harmful.
Warnings
Warning   This therapy involves deliberately provoking distress in children. The American Psychological Association recommends that holding therapy shouldn’t be used because of the potential risk of harm and absence of evidence that it benefits children.
Time

Estimate of the total time for family in hours per week and duration

0-10
The therapy can last from several minutes to several hours.
Cost

Estimate of cost to family per session/item or week

$30-120
The cost varies depending on whether trained therapists are involved in administering the therapy.

What is holding therapy?

Holding therapy involves a person, usually the mother, holding the child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 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?

Holding therapy can be used with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 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 opens up the child’s capacity to relate to others.

Where does holding therapy come from?

The use of this therapy for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 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 spectrum disorder (ASD) is caused by the lack of a bond between a mother and her 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 ASD. It’s suspected that there might be several causes including brain development and genetic factors. But we can say that ASD isn’t caused by anything that parents do or don’t do while raising their children.

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 that 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.

Cost considerations

The costs of holding therapy depend on whether parents use a trained therapist and how much the therapist charges. Additional costs might be 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 people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Who practises holding therapy?

Advocates 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 to have 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 with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.

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Last updated or reviewed
01-08-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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