Paediatric Massage Therapy (MT) Autism
Paediatric Massage Therapy (MT) for Autism
Millions of children have been swept up in a global epidemic of diagnoses of developmental disorders within the autism spectrum classification. Boys appear to be affected four times more than girls1,2. In 1980, autism diagnoses were 1 in 5,000 children. Center for Disease Control CDC[PU1] data indicates the rate now to be 1 in 88 children1. This recent CDC survey on U.S. children living with Autism made quite the flurry online and in the press. It’s results are alarming3.
There are numerous theories on the causes of autism. However, little is known of the causes of autism or its related disorders. such as Asperger's disorder, an autism-like condition usually without language delay. In December, the American Psychological Association announced Asperger's disorder will no longer be a separate diagnosis but instead be incorporated into the diagnosis of autism-spectrum disorder. Other diagnoses within the spectrum include Rett Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder/Not Otherwise Specified and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.
According to the Autism Research Institute, Autism is a severe developmental disorder that begins at birth or within the first two-and-a-half years of life. Most children with autism are perfectly normal in appearance, but spend their time engaged in puzzling behaviours that are markedly different from those of neuro-typically developing children.
Usually diagnosed by the age of 3, this complex developmental condition affects a child’s ability to develop normal language, form relationships or respond appropriately, and is characterised by early onset of a lack of attachment, failure to cuddle as an infant and an almost complete disassociation with the environment.
Autism as we know it, is incurable, and the behaviours associated with the disorder persist throughout the child’s lifetime.
To Touch or Not to Touch
The common belief that children with autism do not like to be touched is false[PU2] . Autism is characterised with sensory malfunction and dysfunction of the tactile system, often making a child averse to certain sights, sounds, smells or touch.
Given that children with autism have been reported to be opposed to physical contact, it is interesting that many of their parents, as well as massage therapistsare finding great success in the use of massage therapy.
Research and Benefits of MT for Children with Autism
Sleeping is a significant issue with children of all ages, and maybe more so with children who have Autism. It is reported that between 56% and 83% of children with autism spectrum disorders experience sleep disturbances, including refusal to go to bed, getting out of bed, tantrums at bedtime, early waking, requiring a parent to sleep with the child, and hyperactivity at night[PU3] . One study introduced the use of touch to several families with ASD children. Not only did the parents feel more in control and closer after the touch training was done, but also gained the perception by parents of the children as having improved sleep patterns, children were more relaxed after receiving the massage and appeared more open to touch4.
Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can often have trouble with attention behaviours which impact social development. One study observed children's responses to aromatherapy massage. Results indicated that the children's shared attention behaviours and other positive behavioural changes increased during aromatherapy massage.
In another study, standardised tests showed a decrease in autistic behaviours and increase in language development in all[PU4] the children, as well as improvement in motor skills, sensory function and general health following medical Qigong massage twice weekly and daily Qigong massage from parents for a five-week period. This was then followed by daily parent massage for another four weeks6.
Studies have shown that MT can improve behaviours such as wandering, resistence to teachers, negative responses to touch and on-task behavior compared to those in a control group. 7 . Others reaffirm the use of MT to improve social relatedness behaviour during play observations at school, and reduce sleep-related problems at home8.
Massage Therapy and Autism Therapists working with children on the autism spectrum should be aware of their possible anxiety about touch and susceptibility to sensory overload. This may stem from tactile hypersensitivities and previous touch being interpreted as painful or confusing. Therapists should move cautiously and respect the child’s cues. Take time to recognise a child’s likes and dislikes associated with types of touch, textures, sensory considerations and type of lubricant.
In addition to parental permission, we must also obtain the child's permission. Children may not always provide direct eye-to-eye contact or a verbal “Yes." Establishing nonverbal communication and using slow transitions are important. If a child does not prefer direct eye-to-eye contact, do not force it, as it may feel confrontational. All children require nurturing touch to thrive, and for those on the autism spectrum, specialised touch therapy is required. Using specialised touch and MT, we may offer these children care and affection.
Tina Allen is the founder and director of the Liddle Kidz Foundation. She is an international author, lecturer and authority on infant and pediatric massage therapy. Allen travels in a tour bus 365 days a year teaching courses internationally, and is the proud mother of Otis. Tina will present paediatric massage courses in the UK in 2014. Contact her at www.LiddleKidz.com.
1. Autism Spectrum Disorders. (2010). Data and Statistics. Retrieved March 12, 2012, from Centers for Disease Control website: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.
2. Autism Spectrum Disorders. (2010). Facts About ASDs. Retrieved March 12, 2012, from Centers for Disease Control website: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html.
3. National Health Statistics, (2013) Changes in Prevalence of Parent-reported Autism Spectrum Disorder in School-aged U.S. Children: 2007 to 2011–2012, Retrieved March 20, 2013, from Centers for Disease Control website: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr065.pdf.
4. Cullen LA, Barlow JH, Cushway D.(2005) Positive touch, the implications for parents and their children with autism: an exploratory study. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 11(3):182-9.
5. Solomons,, S. (2005) Using aromatherapy massage to increase shared attention behaviours in children with autistic spectrum disorders and severe learning difficulties, British Journal of Special Education, Volume 32 Issue 3, Pages 127 – 137
6. Silva LM, Schalock M, Ayres R, Bunse C, Budden S. Qigong massage treatment for sensory and self-regulation problems in young children with autism: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Occup Ther. 2009 Jul-Aug;63(4):423-32.
7. Hartshorn,K., Olds, L., Field, T., Delage, J., Cullen, C. and Escalona, A. (2001) Creative movement therapy benefits children with autism. Early Child and Development and Care,166,1-5.
8. Escalona, A., Field, T., Singer-Strunck, R., Cullen, C., & Hartshorn, K. (2001). Brief report: improvements in the behavior of children with autism following massage therapy. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 31, 513-516.
[PU1]What is CDC? In full Center for Disease Control
[PU2]Reference? Many studies discuss touch aversions and when the use of touch therapy is applied the child’s receives it well and benefits. Do we need a study to demonstrate this? Do you want me to choose just one reference here, or do you feel the rest of te article demonstrates this point through the use of touch therapy and it’s benefits?
[PU4]How many? 8
Tina and the Liddle Kidz Foundation are coming to Ireland this Summer.
Courses will be held in Golden Egg Holistic, Portlaoise, Co Laois and will be presented by
*Both courses have been allocated 40 CPD points by the IMTA*
For more information or to book a course contact