Autism Spectrum Disorder and Massage Therapy

April is National Autism Awareness Month so I thought it appropriate to research the effects of massage therapy on those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Having had family members diagnosed, misdiagnosed, and who are still awaiting diagnosis of ASD, I felt the need to understand it better and see if there was any way I could help.  I was surprised to find out the information that is out there.

According to Hawaii Autism Foundation, with 1 in 68 children being diagnosed with Autism annually it is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the United States. In Hawaii alone, over 1800 students have been identified as having ASD.  Unfortunately here in Hawaii we have a shortage of specialist and families are struggling to get the help they need.

Autism Spectrum Disease is now an umbrella diagnosis that includes Asperger’s, and pervasive development disorder or autistic disorder.  I was surprised to find out that even cites ADD and ADHD as being a part of ASD, being that I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child.

According to the Massage Therapy Journal there is currently no cure for ASD and the best we can do is to help manage the symptoms and behaviors that may be associated with ASD.   Like many other ailments that are considered developmental disorders we are currently managing symptoms with pharmaceuticals.  But current studies are showing some evidence that massage can help to manage some of the behavioral patterns of ASD.

Because those with ASD also are often afflicted with Sensory Processing Disorder, an estimated 96 percent of ASD patients have an altered sensitivity to sensory stimuli.  This means that the 8 sensory systems of the body respond differently for patients with ASD.  Oddly enough though studies are showing massage therapy, craniosacral and deep tissue in particular to be having positive results in managing ASD behavioral patterns.

Tami Goldstein has done studies on massage therapy with the autistic patient and even presented her findings at the National AMTA Convention in 2016.  In addition to that she is parent to an ASD adult.  When asked what drew her into the field of massage therapy this was her answer.

“My daughter was seeing an occupational therapist for sensory processing disorders related to her autism and the OT facilitated bodywork. I became very intrigued by the Upledger CranioSacral Therapy facilitated to reduce seizures, anxiety and touch sensitivities. With the anxiety reduced we saw other improvement in behaviors. For example, she made better eye contact, her OCD reduced and she was more connected and engaged. The OT was also facilitating other bodywork techniques and all were incredibly helpful for my child.”

“As a parent living in the world of autism, to see these improvements when years of traditional pharmaceutical medication did nothing, I went back to school for massage therapy with a goal to help other families dealing with autism spectrum disorders.”

Rachel Benbow, a LMT that practices craniosacral therapy and has worked on patients with ASD agrees with Tami Goldstein that regardless of how many times you have massaged a client with ASD they might become quickly overloaded with senses and respond negatively.  Because of that they offer several tips to aid you in your massage.

1. Always approach from the side of the massage table. Approaching from the head might overstimulate the visual sense and make them anxious.

2. Soft voice and gentle music in the room.

3. Scent free massage room.

4. Move slowly towards the table, and limit your touch. Sometimes starting 10 minute sessions might work better than jumping into a 30 min or even a 60 min massage.

5. Be adaptable. You may have to switch to a massage chair if the sheets on the table make the patient uncomfortable.  You may have to give them a weighted blanket.  You might have a patient that has a meltdown.  But as long as you remain calm and adaptable you can help to control the situation.

Here at Oahu Spine and Rehab we offer mini trigger point sessions that might be more welcoming to patients with ASD.  They are also in a welcoming environment and can have a parent or spouse accompany them to their sessions. If you have any questions about trigger point, give us a call at 488-5555!


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