The Link Between Massage Therapy & Autism

“Parents reported feeling closer to their children and felt that the touch therapy had opened a communication channel between themselves and their children.”2

In 1980, 1 in 5,000 children were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders or ASD. Today, this number has grown immensely to 1 in 68 children. This is a startling growth rate that should cause concern. Although we’re not going to debate the cause of autism in this post, we will investigate a remedy to treat conditions associated with ASD.

Autistic Massage Therapy

Image courtesy Wikimedia

What is Autism?

Autism as defined by the Autism Science Foundation:

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)“Developmental disabilities that cause substantial impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with ASDs also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, and reacting to different sensations.”3

Benefits of Massage for Children with ASD

Research has indicated that massage therapy can improve multiple conditions associated with autism. Massage therapy has been shown to improve social communication, sensory profile, and adaptive behavior. To date, over 132 research studies have been published on this topic. Because of this, massage therapy has been recognized as an effective treatment for autistic children.

  • Induced relaxation.
  • Reduced stress levels.
  • Enhanced on-task and social relatedness behavior during play.
  • Decreased signs of erratic behavior.
  • Increased attention span.
  • Improved sleeping patterns.

You can learn more about the benefits of massage therapy on the body by reading this article.

Research on ASD

Clinical trials have shown that massage therapy has a positive impact on autistic behavior. 2 of the most recognized studies have come from the Touch Research Institute located in Miami, Florida. This study looked at the key characteristics associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders and how they were affected by sessions of massage therapy.

In 1997, Tiffany Field, Ph.D. led a study that concluded that touch therapy can reduce inattentiveness, touch aversion, and withdrawal. It almost seems counterintuitive to combat a condition that causes children to shy away from human touch. Could this possibly teach children to enjoy the warmth of human touch in a psychological manner? By slowly associating the gentle relaxed sensation of massage, this alternative solution can help improve social interaction and touch aversion by reinforcing positive associations.

[Learn more about the psychological benefits of massage therapy.]

In a follow-up study, TRI had parents maintain record of their child’s sleeping patterns. Observed elements include hyperactivity, attentiveness, restless-impulsive behaviors, and emotional state. Each of these areas were judged using a revised Conner’s Scale.

The second study found that there was a clear benefit of massage therapy on sleeping conditions. Children were less inclined to crying, fussing, or attempting to leave the bed. You can apply massage therapy by hand or use massage chairs. We’ll cover these methods in the sections below as well as recommend a treatment course by Liddle Kidz with Autism.

Autism How the Brain Works

Image courtesy Wikimedia

Tips for Applying Massage Therapy to ASD

  • Use smooth stroking movements, working areas around the head, neck, arms, hands, torso, legs, and feet.
  • Follow a pattern. Children with ASD are more inclined to predictable interactions. Try implementing a massage routine that they can get used to.
  • Apply moderate pressure.
  • Start with brief 15 minute sessions twice a week and progress as the child shows signs of improvement.

Treating ASD with Massage Chairs

While hand massage is advisable, parents who own a massage chair can also allow their children to use this device as a form of therapy. Massage chairs are good for children with autism and ADHD. Parents need not worry about any possible dangers. Massage chairs are safe for kids to use.  More on massage chair safety.

Given there is no physical interaction when using these devices, I caution that you may not experience the same gains in terms of touch aversion. Using a massage chair will still be beneficial to other behavioral aspects but I question the ability to improve reluctance to touch. The massage should naturally induce a relaxed mental and emotional state that will be manifested by improved behavior. Read Machine vs Hand Massage Therapy.

Touch Therapy for Liddle Kidz with Autism

The Liddle KidzTM Foundation is a nationally recognized organization dedicated to nurturing the growth of children. Under the direction of Tina Allen, Liddle Kidz has developed a special massage therapy course dedicated to kids with ASD. What a great cause! The Touch Therapy for Liddle Kidz with Autism course provides educational and professional training for massage therapists and healthcare professionals who would like to gain this skill.

For more information on this training program, visit their website.

References:

  1. Cullen, L. and Barlow, J., “Kiss Cuddle, Squeeze’: The Experiences and Meaning of Touch Among Parents of Children with Autism Attending a Touch Therapy Programme,” Journal of Child Health Care 6, 3 (Sept. 2002): 171-181.
  2. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Data & Statistics.” Retrieved on 6/5/2014.
  3. Autism Science Foundation. “What is Autism?” Retrieved on 6/5/2014.
  4. Field, 333. Touch Research Institute.

About the Author
is a sports enthusiast who enjoys leading an active lifestyle. When he’s not watching the game, he’s catching a quick run on local scenic trails across San Diego.

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