Autism is a condition that has been around for decades, but society is just recently becoming more familiar with it as diagnosis and awareness continues to increase in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 American children is diagnosed with autism. And studies show that the condition is four to five times more common among boys than girls. More than 2 million people in the U.S. are affected by autism and government statistics suggest that prevalence rates have increased 10-17 percent annually in recent years.
While each person with autism displays different characteristics and degrees, some of the most common are difficulty with social interaction, language and behavior. Autism symptoms often can be described as having a lack of attachment, a disassociation with the environment, distractibility, hyperactivity and a negative emotional response to touch sensations.
“Children who are held more and get more touch are the children who are more likely to survive and thrive, when compared to children who don’t have that physical aspect in their lives,” shares Fallon Oresick, massage therapist at Elements Westford. “When it comes to autism, it comes down to the same thing.”
Even though adverse responses to touch are common from people with autism, the power of deep touch through therapeutic massage can be an effective approach for helping relieve common physical and mental ailments associated with the condition. Massage also can be a helpful remedy for parents and caretakers to connect with an autistic person, as well as help release the stress and tension associated with autism.
“Parents may not think about using massage with their autistic children because when they try to touch their child, they automatically back away,” says Angel Wossum, massage therapist at Elements Florence. “But with massage it’s all about the type of pressure you use. Massage can help relax the mind and body, which can result in sleeping better, staying more focused and staying on task.”
Deeper Massage Leads to Better Mental, Physical Benefits
Touch is such an important aspect to living a healthy and fulfilled life. But it’s often lacking in the daily lives of children with autism. Since lighter touch tends to overstimulate and aggravate an autistic person, a moderate to deeper pressure massage with joint compression has been found to more effectively calm down, relax, and ground hyperactivity and sensitivity.
“Massage is about relaxing and bringing a child with autism back down to earth,” says Oresick. “It’s going to help improve their quality of life by helping them work through their emotions and moods, as well as regulate their breathing to help them relax more. Instead of having children overstimulated by everything that’s going on around them, massage gives them a designated time to just relax and tune into themselves. It also can help them realize that touch isn’t bad and that it’s actually something that feels good and is good for them.”
In addition to the behavioral and mental benefits of massage, deeper pressure also is used to get the joints moving around so autistic children can experience physical relief in their often tight leg and feet muscles. Research has shown that many people with autism have a tendency to walk on the tips of their toes or balls of their feet, causing tight and tense calves and feet. Using deep pressure massage techniques with joint compression and stretching can help relieve pain in the lower extremities.
Calm, Collaborative, Total Body Approach Key to Success
Therapists approach massage a lot more gradually and include a lot of communication with the child and the parents before, during and following the massage. In the beginning, sessions may only last 15-20 minutes. As the child becomes more comfortable to touch and to the massage experience in general, then the sessions can be eventually extended. The biggest factors to get the most out of the massage experience is to use a therapist who values the importance of building trust with the child, as well as the parent’s willingness to continue the massage techniques at home in between appointments, says Wossum.
“It’s important to take the time to gain the child’s trust by educating them about touch and talking to them about what’s going to happen during the massage,” explains Wossum. “Part of the routine that’s been developed is that you don’t just target one area. The way that the brain works and the way that it can be overactive, you have to work on each side of the body -– front, back, both arms and legs. It has to be basically a full body massage or the signals in the brain won’t feel complete.”
Power of Touch Helps Connect Children with Parents
Regular, routine massage treatments in the studio are important to help treat children with autism. But it’s also imperative for parents to keep touch consistent in their everyday life. At home, if parents are able to continue massaging their child on a regular basis, even if it’s just their shoulders, legs and feet, that will help them experience better, quicker results.
In-home massage also helps to reconnect the child with his/her parents by introducing the power of positive touch into their relationship. Some techniques that Oresick and Wossum suggest parents try at home include running a toy car up and down the back of the arm or leg, giving them the option to massage their own arms and legs, or showing them on yourself what you’re going to do and have them repeat it on themselves so they can become more comfortable with letting you massage them.
“The majority of the time parents are in the room observing during the massage so we are teaching the parents what they can do at home,” explains Wossum. “It can be a bonding moment for the parents as well. A lot of the time, the parents haven’t been able to have that type of touch with their children so when they see this method works, we educate them so they can continue doing it at home too.”
At the end of the day, using massage to help with the unique situations and circumstances associated with autism comes down to re-educating and re-conditioning parents and children on proper touch techniques so that they both can thrive from the benefits of this basic life necessity.