GrapevineAug/Sep 2009 Issue

Tender Touch: Autism and Massage Therapy

Massage may help your autistic child


As a physical therapist assistant and massage therapist, I understand the importance of touch. But I never knew how crucial touch is to children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) until I began working with them on a daily basis. For these children, touch is more than casual contact. It signifies a level of trust and understanding that can only come through patience and diligence.

According to the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, regular massage decreases touch aversion in autistic children and helps minimize stress and anxiety. In addition, massage is linked to better social responsiveness, increased cooperative behaviors at home and in the classroom and improved sleep patterns. Although results are temporary, they are cumulative. That means making massage a regular part of your child’s routine extends its positive effects.

Before you add massage to your child’s toolbox of treatments, consult your primary care pediatrician about contraindications. For example, a child taking Ritalin, a medication to address symptoms of attention defi cit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may experience dizziness or lightheadedness from the drug; massage could increase these side effects. Ritalin can also produce tachycardia (abnormally fast heart rate), a condition that would rule out massage.

Once you get the medical OK, consider hiring a professional massage therapist, even for one session, to teach you basic technique. Most parents who perform simple massage on their child witness positive results. At the very least, they feel more connected with their youngster and they see their child’s tolerance for touch increase. Here’s how to begin:

Set a schedule. For good results, massage should be performed at least twice a month. Two times a day to two times a week is ideal, depending on your child’s response. Commit to a regular time and make it part of your child’s routine.

Choose a calm space. Massage should occur in a quiet place where both you and your child feel comfortable and safe. Speak softly. Dim the lights. Limit distractions.

Be patient. Touch-sensitive kids have to build up tolerance and this takes time. Go slowly. Don’t push it.

Use enough pressure. Contact-averse children are most sensitive to light touch. That’s why palm pressure must be firm. Begin with moderate pressure to the head/neck, arms, legs and back. Do this for up to one minute, as tolerated, working up to four minutes.

Keep it steady. Massage movement should always be slow and rhythmic. Pressure should be moderate, steady and broad, using the entire palm of hand.

Develop a technique. Once palm pressure is well tolerated, introduce movement. Start with effleurage, a soothing technique where the whole hand glides over an area (up the leg, for example). Use moderate, consistent pressure, always directing movement toward the heart. Take care over bony and sensitive spots, such as the crook of the arm, the sides of the neck, behind the knee. When effleurage is well accepted, try petrissage or muscle kneading. Maintain steady, moderate pressure; avoid pinching. Suggested routine: effleurage for at least four strokes, petrissage for 30 to 60 seconds and then four more effleurages. You may not see big changes in your child at first—but don’t be discouraged. Consistence and persistence are the keys to success. When performed regularly, massage calms and soothes and can help ASD children improve emotionally, socially and academically. LW

Sandra Koehler lives in Glendora, New Jersey.


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