A qigong massage protocol developed specifically for young children with autism and applied daily for five months resulted in significant decreases in tactile impairment, self-regulatory delay and parenting stress, according to recent research.

The study, “Treatment of Tactile Impairment in Young Children with Autism: Results with Qigong Massage,” involved 129 children with autism. The children ranged in age from 3 to 6 years old and were recruited from early intervention programs for young children with autism.

Among these children, 97 received qigong massage and 32 were in a waitlist control group. The qigong massage protocol used is known as Qigong Sensory Training. The researchers developed this protocol over the course of a decade. It is designed specifically to address tactile impairment and self-regulatory delay in children with autism.

For the intervention, parents were trained in Qigong Sensory Training and provided massage to their children daily for five months. Some of the children in the study also received a weekly massage from a therapist trained in the same protocol, which served to supplement the daily massage from parents. According to the researchers, the intervention takes about 15 minutes and usually takes place before bed with the children in pajamas.

“It consists of 12 parts following the acupuncture channels on the front and back of the body, with manual strokes carried out in a downward direction,” state the study’s authors. “A combination of patting and pressing strokes is used, with technique adapted to the child’s response to massage on each area.”

Autism research reports tactile abnormalities are one of the hallmarks of autism, wherein children display painful withdrawal from and avoidance of gentle touch and an unusually high pain threshold to injury. Touch from parents is linked to the stimulation of self-regulatory milestones, and as parents touch children with autism less—due to their painful withdrawal and avoidance—the tactile stimulus to self-regulatory development dwindles.

“The main focus of the first one to three months of massage is on training parents not to avoid areas of difficulty, but instead to support the child and use specific massage techniques to resolve the difficulties,” state the study’s authors. “Once tactile abnormalities resolve, withdrawal from touch disappears. From this point forward, massage initiates a strong stimulation to self-regulation—children calm down, tantrums diminish; sleep and digestion improve; children make eye contact and become receptive to social interaction.”

Outcome measures in this study were the parent-reported Sense and Self-Regulation Checklist and the Autism Parenting Stress Index. The first measures abnormal sensory responses and self-regulatory challenges in preschool children; the second measures parenting stress related to 13 aspects of child self-regulation that are of concern to parents.

Results of this research showed significant improvements in tactile impairment, self-regulatory delay and parenting stress among children who received the five-month massage intervention. The mean reductions in tactile impairment, self-regulatory delay and parenting stress were 25.5 percent, 24.5 percent and 35.8 percent, respectively. According to the researchers, “These reductions represent considerable movement toward scores seen in typically developing children.”

“This study represents the first documented evidence resulting from formal research that tactile abnormalities in young children with autism are significantly improved following qigong massage, and that treatment also improved child self-regulation and decreased parenting stress,” state the study’s authors. “Self-regulatory delay and parenting stress were directly related to tactile impairment, and treating tactile impairment resulted in proportional reductions of both.”


Authors: Louisa Silva and Mark Schalock.

Sources: Teaching Research Institute, Western Oregon University, Monmouth, Oregon. Originally published in December 2013 in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, 6(4), 12-20.