Essential oils & aromatherapy massage for Autism

Aromatherapy & Autism - Managing the anxiety state of children with ASD

Autism is much more common than many people think. It is estimated that there are approximately 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK – equating to 1.1% of the population. 

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects communication and behaviour. It appears to occur in early development, with most obvious signs becoming apparent between the ages of two and three. It isn’t an illness or disease and it cannot be cured. People with autism are not physically disabled in the same way that a person with cerebral palsy may be; they do not require wheelchairs and they ‘look’ just like anybody without the disability.  Due to this invisible nature it can be much harder to create awareness and understanding of the condition.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms, which typically include persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction, highly focused interests, repetitive behaviour and routines which impact on normal daily life, sensory sensitivity and irritability. People with ASD may also experience sleep and gastrointestinal problems. As well as the negative symptoms, autistic people have many positive traits. They can be highly intelligent, have an excellent memory and excel in certain areas such as maths, music or art!

Benefits of massage for children with Autism

While it is quite normal to feel anxious about certain situations, people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can feel anxious a lot of the time and it’s important to handle the stress or feelings of insecurity appropriately.  It is vitally important for parents or primary care-givers to find out when the worrying behaviour occurs as identifying the trigger allows the carer to apply strategies which may help overcome the problem.  The provision of massage and essential oils may also help the child manage his/her anxiety and facilitate their learning.  In an interview with Freeman and Lawlis (2001) developmental psychologist Tiffany Field, Ph.D., founder of the Touch Research Institute states that:

“In a study on children with autism it was shown that the children with autism not only liked the massage, but they were also able to spend more time on task in the classroom; they related to their teachers better, and they showed fewer stereotypical behaviours.” 

It is important not to underestimate the importance of managing the anxiety of children with ASD.  Research outcomes have clearly identified a link between emotion and physiological reactivity and immune competence.  Our interpretation of events and our emotional responses to those events are the mechanisms by which the mind affects physiology and biochemistry and, consequently, health outcomes (Freeman et al 2001).  Complementary therapy may, therefore, have an important supportive role in the management of this disorder.  While there are many benefits relating to providing massage (and especially with the use of essential oils) such as creation of body awareness, enhancement of sensory awareness, promotion of well-being and self-worth, building a relationship with others, relief of stress and tension, increasing tolerance of touch and handling, enjoyment, time to reflect and talk, relaxation or stimulation depending upon techniques and oils used, data from questionnaires distributed to parents and primary care-givers by this author would suggest that very few in the piloted areas used massage or essential oils as a tool for managing the anxiety state of their children with ASD.

A study carried out by Field et. al in 1986 investigated the effects of touch therapy, another term for massage therapy, on three problems commonly associated with autism including inattentiveness (off task behaviour), touch aversion, and withdrawal.  The results showed that touch aversion decreased in both the touch therapy and the touch control group, off task behaviour decreased in both groups, orienting to irrelevant sounds decreased in both groups but significantly more in the touch therapy group and stereotypic behaviours decreased in both groups but significantly more in the touch therapy group.

When using essential oils in massage, it is important to use the correct dilutions, for example: Infants aged 1 – 5 years 1 drop of essential oil in 10ml of carrier oil, Children aged 6 – 12 years 2 drops in 10ml of carrier oil, Children aged 12 years and over 5 drops of essential oil in 10ml of carrier oil.  

Although essential oils can’t cure autism, there are a number of oils which can be used to soothe different symptoms of ASD such as anxiety, stress, depression, anger, attention deficit, hyperactivity and insomnia. Popular choices include Bergamot, Chamomile, Frankincense, Lavender, Orange, Peppermint and Vetivert. See the section below for more information on these oils and more.

Obtaining consent from the primary care-giver and medical practitioner is, of course, of paramount importance.  As most children with ASD have high levels of sensory sensitivity I recommend using one essential oil in a suitable carrier oil initially and providing a shorter treatment; a hand and arm massage would be ideal. Feedback can be given at subsequent visits, with changes made to the blend and treatment as appropriate.

Useful essential oils for children with ASD

Although there is little scientific evidence on the efficacy of using essential oils with autistic children there is a growing amount of anecdotal evidence published online by parents who are using essential oils to great effect. Here are some of the oils that are reputed to be most helpful:

  • Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) – is excellent for agitation and lifting the mood. It has a relaxing, calming effect that helps to reduce stress and anxiety. It is considered one of the best oils for autistic children who are sensory seeking.
  • Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica) – is calming and relaxing and can help to promote more restful sleep.
  • Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) – has soothing, sedative properties that are excellent for calming stress, anxiety, hyperactivity and meltdowns, and aiding relaxation and sleep.
  • Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) - helpful for reducing stress reactions, negative emotions and anxious obsessional links to the past. It can also calm the mind and help maintain focus.
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – is balancing, calming and can help to soothe emotional stress and anxiety and improve sleep.
  • Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana/hortensis) – is analgesic, antispasmodic, balancing, calming and good for obsessional behaviour.
  • Orange (Citrus aurantium amara) – is cheering, calming, helping to reduce anxiety and lift the mood.
  • Peppermint – It’s cooling, refreshing effects have a calming effect on the body. It can also improve mental focus.
  • Rose Otto (Rosa damascena) - is balancing, calming, sedative and acts as a general tonic.
  • Sandalwood (Santalum album) - has a relaxing, calming sedative effect. It can also improve attention levels and aid mental clarity.
  • Vetivert (Vetiveria zizanioides) – calms and relaxes the mind and body and helps reduce anger and irritation.

Christine Fisk
Consultant Aromatherapist

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