Autism and Massage Therapy
Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), affects roughly one out of 54 children as of 2021. Worldwide, one out of 160 people are believed to have the condition.
This complex developmental disorder ranges in severity, and the symptoms vary from person to person. Many of those with autism possess high levels of intelligence and fine attention to detail, but have trouble reading basic social cues. Others may require assistance with everyday tasks, needing anywhere from occasional help to around-the-clock care. ASD comes with its unique gifts and quirks, which should be celebrated and made known to promote neurodiversity. With that said, it still comes with its challenges that may benefit from the right type of therapy.
And what exactly does that mean, the right type of therapy? Well, there isn’t one-size-fits-all therapy, and I just want to make that clear before continuing. Massage therapy, as I’ve witnessed firsthand from patients on my table, can work wonders on individuals with autism. I’ve watched children with behavioral problems ease into a quiet calmness during a face massage and I’ve felt the joy radiating from a man’s skin when he talked to me for an hour straight about his narrow interests — which happened to be the first generation of Pokemon, a topic that I know pretty much everything about. (Here’s a fun piece of trivia! Satoshi Tajiris, the creator of Pokemon, is on the autism spectrum.) However, there’s the reality that massage won’t be the right therapy for everyone. As I’ve addressed in “How to Find a Good Massage Therapist”, one bad experience can completely skew a person’s take on massage therapy. A person with autism may form an inflexible dislike for massage after or during the session, and there’s no shame in steering clear of it if it provokes anxiety.
With that covered, let’s talk about how massage can benefit those who would like to try it out.
Symptoms Which Can Benefit From Massage Therapy
Approximately 96% of people with ASD have some degree of heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and tactile sensitivity is the most prevalent. Hypersensitivity to tactile sensations can cause touch aversion in patients with ASD, which can lead to further complications caused by touch starvation such as muscle tension, high blood pressure, impaired immunity, and gastrointestinal problems. The most prevalent symptom of touch aversion, however, is anxiety.
When we engage in gentle skin-to-skin contact, the brain releases a feel-good chemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin decreases anxiety and plays a crucial role in social bonding. An introduction to massage therapy, with careful steps in place*, may encourage a person with ASD to welcome the concept of therapeutic touch and reap its anxiety reducing benefits.
Social awkwardness and difficulty with relationships are common challenges for people with ASD. Touch aversion is a contributing factor, but not the only one. People on the autism spectrum may find social situations overwhelming, lack confidence in their social skills, have trouble reading basic social cues, or constantly worry about being bullied.
Massage therapists are trained listeners. If a person with ASD needs someone to talk to, we’re there for support. In my experience, the vast majority of my patients are regulars who I now consider friends of mine. A person with ASD, after receiving a therapeutic massage, may form a professional friendship with their therapist too.
Also note, it’s not uncommon for our patients to experience an emotional release during a massage, nor is it anything to be ashamed of. The massage room is a safe place to let go of the pent up emotions brought on by social isolation.
Trouble sleeping is a fairly common issue in general, and it’s very prevalent among those with ASD. An estimated 80% of young children on the spectrum have difficulty sleeping, compared to the 40% of neurotypical children or those with different developmental conditions.
Sleep disturbances may be linked to sensitivity to light, touch, and sound. Other contributing factors include conditions that often manifest alongside autism, such as gastrointestinal issues, ADHD, depression, or anxiety. Evidence shows that poor sleep may worsen some symptoms of autism, such as severe repetitive behaviors, hyperactivity, difficulty paying attention, and impaired social skills.
Massage therapy has the benefit of promoting restful sleep. Therapeutic touch stimulates the pineal gland, which responds by releasing serotonin. This relaxing chemical vital to the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Massage also reduces levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that surges when we sense danger.
Studies show that children with autism are predisposed to low numbers of antibodies called immunoglobulins, which puts them at risk for respiratory problems and gastrointestinal infections. Children on the spectrum are also at increased risk for low levels of lymphocytes known as T-cells and natural killer cells, which detect and destroy infected cells.
Mindful skin-to-skin contact encourages the surge of illness-causing antigens. During a massage, the nerves in the skin that connect to the lymphocyte-storing glands are stimulated. Lymphatic drainage massage can be especially helpful, as it promotes the movement of lymph to the lymph nodes, where toxins are neutralized.
Take Careful Steps
Whether the appointment is for you or someone in your care, these are some helpful tips for easing into your first therapeutic massage:
- Familiarize yourself with different massage modalities. This will give you an idea of the best massage for your needs. You may feel more comfortable knowing what to expect from your session.
- Know that this is your massage. If there is any aspect of a massage that makes you uncomfortable (ie. undressing, loud music, temperature of heating blanket, etc.), be sure to tell your massage therapist. You have the option to remain fully clothed; the music can be lowered or shut off; and there’s nothing wrong with wanting the temperature adjusted throughout the session. We’ll do whatever we can to put you at ease, just say what’s on your mind.
- You can bring moral support. If you’d feel more relaxed with a friend or family member nearby, you may have one in the room for the duration of the massage. Know that all children, with or without ASD, must be accompanied by a legal guardian during the massage.
Now You Know!
Find out if massage is the right treatment for you!
Author, Licensed Massage Therapist
Katrina Jenkins graduated from Towson University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Science and worked as a nurse’s aide briefly before pursuing her true passion. She graduated from the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado in April 2016 with honors and completed the Touch of Healers Scholarship Program the following summer. She has been a part of the Moyer Total Wellness Team since the summer of 2017.
Alexandra Benisek (2021). Touch Starvation: What to Know. [online] WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/balance/touch-starvation.
Art (2018). How Satoshi Tajiri’s autism helped create Pokemon. [online] The Art of Autism. Available at: https://the-art-of-autism.com/how-satoshi-tajiris-autism-helped-create-pokemon/.
Brennan, MD, D. (2020). Conditions & Disorders with Symptoms Similar to Autism. [online] WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/autism-similar-conditions.
Devnani, P. and Hegde, A. (2015). Autism and sleep disorders. Journal of Pediatric Neurosciences, [online] 10(4), p.304. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4770638/.
Ebrahimi Meimand, S., Rostam-Abadi, Y. and Rezaei, N. (2021). Autism spectrum disorders and natural killer cells: a review on pathogenesis and treatment. Expert Review of Clinical Immunology, [online] 17(1), pp.27–35. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33191807/.
Evans, J.R. (2017). Haphephobia: Understanding Fear of Touch. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/haphephobia#seek-help.
Shryer, D. (2017). Breaking Through: Massage and Autism | Massage Therapy Journal. [online] American Massage Therapy Association. Available at: https://www.amtamassage.org/publications/massage-therapy-journal/massage-and-autism/.
Canva by Chinnapong