by Tina Allen, LMT, CPMMT, CPMT, CIMT
Updated July 2013
Usually diagnosed by the age of three years, Autism is a complex developmental condition, which affects a child’s ability to develop normal language, form relationships with others and respond appropriately to the environment. Autism is also characterized by early onset of a lack of attachment, the failure to cuddle as an infant, and an almost complete disassociation with the environment. Autism, as we now know it, is incurable and the behaviors associated with the disorder persist throughout the child’s lifetime.
The lack of communication between parent and child is one of the most heart wrenching effects of this condition. An autistic child typically does not express any words of love, share hugs or show any facial expression in response to pleasure.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as many as half of all autistic individuals remain mute throughout their life. For those who do develop verbal language, some use it in odd ways, repeating what they hear, using single words or failing to structure complete sentences. The autistic child lacks the ability to make requests for his needs or to respond appropriately to his environment.
It has been long believed that an autistic child is incapable of forming attachment. However, research has concluded that these children do attach to their parents, but still remain incapable of acting on this attachment or responding appropriately.
Many autistic children have sensory malfunction and dysfunction of the tactile system making them averse to certain sights, sounds, smells or touch. Given that autistic children have been reported to be opposed to physical contact, it is interesting that many massage therapists, and parents, are finding great success in the use of massage therapy with autistic children.
Research has found that these children show less autistic behavior, are more social and attentive after receiving massage therapy. This safe, nurturing touch and regular sensory integration is beneficial in reducing inattentiveness, touch aversion and withdrawal.
Not so commonly known, many autistic children have significantly lower levels of Oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a hormone which is associated with emotional connections and feelings of love. It can cause feelings of warmth and relaxation and a decrease in stress. Numerous research studies have proven that Oxytocin is released in our bodies during, and after, receiving nurturing touch. A 2007 study reported that oxytocin helped autistic individuals retain the ability to evaluate the emotional significance of speech and also showed a decrease in autism spectrum repetitive behaviors.
Many children with autism have problems establishing a regular sleep pattern and in remaining asleep through the night. The relaxing benefits of massage and touch therapy contribute to more restful sleep, including less sleep disruption and longer sleep duration.
Through the use of massage therapy, our basic human need for safe, nurturing contact is met with often wonderful results. For children with autism, it provides not only a positive experience of being touched, but the effects hold lifelong benefits.
Massage may be a supportive therapy that can be readily applied, most effectively by specially trained massage therapists or by parents who have learned massage techniques from a skilled, educated massage therapist. Pediatric massage and nurturing touch are the most appropriate massage techniques to use in this population. When using massage therapy for children with cancer, your work does not need to be aggressive to achieve its maximum potential.
For more information visit Comprehensive Pediatric Massage Training Course (CPMT)
For more information visit: Advanced Specialized Pediatric Massage Training for Autism
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