massage for autism

The rising incidence of autism has garnered much attention in recent years.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one in 68 American children carry a diagnosis that falls on the autism spectrum. This represents a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. Treatment options include education and behavioral interventions, as well as medication. But for some infants and children diagnosed with autism, massage has also been shown to offer some benefit. 


What is autism?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicates that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is “a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.” Conditions range from a milder form, Asperger syndrome, to the most severe type, autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD. 

As early as infancy, a baby may manifest symptoms, such as impaired social interaction, unresponsiveness, failure to smile and make eye contact, among others. Those diagnosed with autism may flinch when being touched and might have a negative response to certain textures, so massage may seem a counter-intuitive approach. But therapists who use a safe, slow nurturing approach to massage may sometimes break through that defensive system and provide relaxation.


Real-world application

Ora Lee,  a certified prenatal and pediatric massage therapist at First Peek Ultrasound in McKinney, Texas, knows first-hand how infants with autism can benefit from massage. When her daughter was five months old, she began to display some troubling signs, such as an aversion to touch and difficulty with fine motor skills; at 17 months she was diagnosed with autism.

Lee unsuccessfully sought ways to calm her daughter down when she became agitated. When she happened to see a video of massage for children with autism, Lee immediately signed up for a course. After earning her certification, she began applying her new knowledge to her daughter, massaging her for 15 minutes, and also using the technique for children with autism who came to First Peek. 

“The time to adjust varies from child to child,” she says. “Most children settle in five to eight minutes from my experience.” 

This type of massage is specially designed for the attention span and comfort level of the child and helps the child get accustomed to touch and different stimuli. 

In her practice, Lee has used this type of massage to reduce sensory integration attachment issues, perseveration behaviors, hyper-responsiveness and under-reactivity to stimuli. 

“Touch is an amazing natural soother,” she says.


What does the research say?

Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute supports Lee’s theories. In a 2001 study (“Brief report: Improvements in the behavior of children with autism following massage therapy,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders), 20 children with autism were assigned to massage therapy and reading attention control groups. Trained therapists taught the parents to massage their children for 15 minutes every night before bedtime for one month; the control group read Dr. Suess books to their children. The findings indicate that children in the massage group displayed less stereotypical behavior and more social interaction during play observations at school; they also reported better sleep patterns. 

An earlier study (“Brief report: Autistic children’s attentiveness and responsivity improved after touch therapy,” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders 1997) evaluated touch therapy and found positive results in both the study and control groups, although the former showed significantly less touch aversion, off-task behavior and orienting to irrelevant sounds. 


Getting started

Lee recommends that parents learn this massage from a professional, even if only one class, to give some guidance on the best technique. “If you startle the child, she may fear massage altogether and it may be difficult to re-introduce massage to them.”

When asked the best age to begin massage for children with autism, Lee says, “I don’t think it’s ever too early to begin.”