Massage and Autism Spectrum Disorder By Miley Flowers, LMP

 In Massage, Physical Therapy

For individuals and parents of children experiencing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s not uncommon to experience an aversion to touch, sensory processing differences and difficulties with connecting socially. Research is showing that massage can be helpful in working through some of these concerns that arise with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Massage and Autism: How does it work?

1 in 68 children are diagnosed with ASD. That’s a huge increase from several years ago and the number continues to grow. With this increase comes the need for a broader rangeAutism-5 of treatments. Traditionally, physical therapy, occupational therapy, ABA, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have been the go-to treatments for ASD. While these will continue to be valuable modalities to turn to, massage therapy is gaining traction as yet another option and research is backing it up as a valid and successful way to treat some of the symptoms associated with ASD. Here’s how it works:

When the tactile system is immature and working improperly, abnormal neural signals are sent to the cortex in the brain which can interfere with other brain processes. This type of over-stimulation in the brain can make it difficult for an individual to organize one’s behavior and concentrate and may lead to a negative emotional response to touch sensations. Usually, this sensitivity to touch is from light touch and therefore a deeper pressure can have quite the opposite effect and actually be soothing for someone with ASD. This deep touch can alleviate multiple symptoms including poor language skills, distractibility, hyperactivity, and the inability to accept changes in their environment, which may result in frustration, aggression, or complete withdrawal.

Autism-Friendly Massage Techniques: The Basics

When applying massage techniques to little ones, it can be difficult to have them sit still so we need to think outside the box and tailor it to their own needs. Here are some basics to get you started:

1. Always ask for permission to touch them. If they can’t give a verbal response, try using picture cards.
2. Consider their schedule and try to work massage into it on a daily basis, choosing a time when they’re the most calm.
3. If they are aversive to skin on skin contact, try using other materials such as felt or silk material square, a washcloth, or even an exfoliating glove depending on their textural preferences.
4. If you use an oil, start with a gentle unscented oil like grapeseed
17356148-mmmain or jojoba. If you’ve had success with essential oils in the past, feel free to use them but don’t introduce anything new until they are used to the massage itself.
5. Start with a medium pressure hand massage. Check in with them to make sure the pressure feels comfortable. Applying massage to the webbing between the thumb and forefinger will stimulate the release of serotonin (the hormone that regulates mood, hunger, and sleep and promotes a sense of safety and well-being) and oxytocin (often referred to as our “love hormone” which induces that warm, fuzzy feeling). This is a great way to ease into your massage session.
6. Make it fun! Incorporate a favorite song or story and match the speed and intensity of the massage strokes to your song/story. Here is one of my favorites:
Let’s Make a Pizza! Use a pool noodle and start by “rolling out the dough” on their back. Let them choose the toppings and make different shapes on their back for each one. If they don’t like pizza try using the same concept with a cookie or pancake.

Be creative!

Most importantly, get creative. After all, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Appreciate their individuality and unique differences and honor those differences by creating a massage routine that works for both of you.

For more ideas and information about how massage can benefit your loved one with ASD, please contact me at Natural Body Works (360-694-9726) or email me at

• Autism and Treatment With Therapeutic Massage by Michael Regina-Whiteley. Massage Today; February, 2005, Vol. 05, Issue 02

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