How Massage Therapy May Benefit Children with Autism

Autism is now being diagnosed at an alarming rate.  In fact, experts estimate that approximately one in every 200 children is now affected by this disorder.  Meanwhile, concerned researchers, doctors, and other medical expert-types worldwide are no closer to understanding the cause or causes of this mysterious disorder.  On the home front, educators and parents are also seeking out effective treatments, ranging from conventional to completely unconventional, in order to combat autism’s overwhelmingly detrimental symptoms.  And now, massage therapy is growing in favor amongst professionals and parents alike because, when combined with other more conventional treatments, this alternative therapy can calm the mind and body of a child suffering with autism, and help acclimate the child to touch, which is so essential to human interaction.  In fact, extensive clinical trials have shown that massage therapy can contribute to an overall improvement in quality of life for autistic children.

What Is Autism?

Autism is an incurable brain disorder, commonly diagnosed by the age of three years, in which children fail to properly develop language, form relationships, and express themselves.   Autism affects every aspect of these children’s lives, including the home, classroom, and playground environments.  Children suffering from autism are prone to hyperactivity, inattentiveness, restlessness, impulsive behaviors, repetitive conduct, restricted interests, self-stimulating actions (such as rocking or spinning), sleep difficulties, and erratic emotional states. You may also notice that a child with autism often has an abnormal response to sensory stimuli, a limited attention span, and touch aversion.   They are often emotionally and socially withdrawn, which is due primarily to their inability to learn, pay attention to details, and retain information as quickly as their peers.  It is at this point that they develop antisocial behavior that forces them to withdraw deeper into themselves. Due to the damage this disorder causes developmentally, autistic children are often unable to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable actions and behaviors.  Many autistic children also have sensory malfunction and dysfunction, which renders them averse to certain sights, sounds, smells, or touches.   Autism tragically affects everyone involved in the life of a child suffering from this disorder.  Parents are often saddened by the coldness of their interactions and inability to bond with their autistic children.  It can often seem like a dead line of communication between the loved one and the autistic child, as the basics of natural human interaction certainly do not seem “natural” to someone suffering from autism.

Massage Therapy: An Unconventional, Yet Successful Treatment for Autism

Massage therapy is a promising new avenue of non-verbal expression for autistic children, helping to bridge the gap to the people who love them.  After all, despite previous beliefs to the contrary, those with autism are not incapable of forming attachment; they are simply unable to act or respond to these feelings or interactions in a “typical” way.  Remarkably, when given regular massage therapy, they were not only more receptive to touch, but they were also more capable of initiating affection, were more cooperative with daily tasks, and were more responsive to their parents’ requests and disciplinary measures.    If administered frequently, massage therapy may improve an autistic child’s language skills, academic performance, and classroom concentration.  They also grow increasingly more confident, outgoing, secure, and independent overall.   Researchers believe that this may be due to the active physical contact and relaxation involved in massage therapy.  Additionally, the increased activity to key cranial nerves brought about by massage could account for their increased attentiveness.

It is commonly known that massage therapy helps to facilitate positive neurological, social, and emotional development in all peoples.  However, massage is proven to assist in the reduction of many pervasive autistic behaviors, and these techniques have been observed to help children with autism reach a more balanced and calm level in order for them to more successfully function in school, at home, and in the community.  Soothing strokes can help deter stress and make those suffering with autism more relaxed and feel safer, which will in turn more likely incite calm, appropriate responses to situations.  The relaxing benefits of massage therapy also contribute to improved sleep patterns for those with autism, including more restful sleep, less sleep disruption, and longer sleep duration.  Improvements are also often seen in these children’s motor skills, sensory function, and overall general health.

However, it is autistic children’s general aversion to touch that probably makes the success of massage therapy so surprising.  In fact, it is believed that massage improves autistic children’s overall reactions to touch in the long term.  Massage therapy treatments offer autistic children the touch necessary in order to gain the heightened and necessary feeling and body awareness. Researchers believe this may be related to the one-on-one nature of massage therapy treatment, as well as the comforting predictability of the massage-related touch, as opposed to the more generalized, startling, and often spontaneous touch experienced in typical social settings.

For a more scientific explanation regarding the benefits of massage therapy for autistic children, it is proven that many autistic children have significantly lower levels of Oxytocin, the hormone associated with emotional connections and feelings of love in the body.  Oxytocin can also cause feelings of warmth and relaxation.  Studies have shown that Oxytocin is released in the body both during and after massage therapy.  And these resulting higher levels of Oxytocin help autistic children more effectively evaluate the emotional significance of speech.  They also showed a decrease in repetitive behaviors.  Additionally, massage releases serotonin in the body, a neuro-transmitting chemical known for encouraging a sense of wellbeing and happiness.  And although by no means proven fact, studies have shown a potential link between abnormal serotonin synthesis and autism.

How to Properly Massage a Child with Autism

Parents and message therapists must work together to decide which of the many massage therapy techniques would be most beneficial to each individual autistic child.  However, moderate pressure applied with long, smooth, stroking movements to the head, neck, arms, hands, torso, legs, and feet are the most often recommended massage treatments for autistic children.  The firmer touch, the routine, and the predictability of massage are easier for autistic children to tolerate.  After all, it is the light touch often associated with “normal” human interactions that can over-stimulate those with autism, thereby resulting in negative reactions.

Massaging an autistic child will always be challenging at the beginning, but with the passage of time, their tolerance will gradually improve.  Use simpler techniques in the beginning stages of massage therapy.  Also, be certain to consistently associate the word “massage” with the action of massage.  By repeating it daily, an autistic child will learn what to expect when the word is said.  Skin-to-skin contact may not be well received by a child with autism at first, so limiting touch to areas covered by clothing may make the child more comfortable.  It would certainly be useful to attend massage therapy classes in order to ensure that the treatment is being performed correctly.  However, massage therapy does not need to necessarily be performed by a licensed therapist.  If you communicate love and care to the autistic child through massage, there is a good chance this therapy can have significantly positive and long-lasting effects.



Bethany Brewer enjoys freelance writing on topics related to health and education.

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