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Massages provide lifetime benefits for autistic children

April is National Autism Awareness Month, a good time for massage therapists to understand the benefits of healthy touch

In 1980, autism diagnoses alone were 1 in 5,000; the most current data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that rate is now 1 in 88 children.

Boys appear to be affected four times as much as girls.

Through the use of massage therapy, these kids’ basic need for safe, nurturing contact is met, with often wonderful results

All children require nurturing touch to thrive, and for those on the autism spectrum, specialized touch therapy is required. Using specialized touch, we are able to meet these children with care and affection where they are.

Pediatric massage provides a positive experience of being touched, and the effects hold lifelong benefits.

The cost of a child’s lifelong care can be reduced by as much as two-thirds, when early diagnosis and appropriate interventions are put in place, according to the Autism Society of America.

Touch Helps

The common belief that children with autism do not like to be touched is false.

Autism is characterized with sensory malfunction and dysfunction of the tactile system, often making a child averse to certain sights, sounds, smells or touch.

Given that children with autism have been reported to be opposed to physical contact, it is interesting that many massage therapists and parents are finding great success with the use of massage therapy for those considered to be on the spectrum.

“People with autism-spectrum disorders often struggle with increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli, including tactile stimulation, and massage provides a comforting experience of tactile stimulation while also helping to decrease pain amplification through desensitization,” explains Dustin P. Wallace, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the Integrative Pain Management Clinic and Division of Developmental and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Mercy.

Just because a child doesn’t communicate in a way you understand, does not mean he lacks IQ points.

Carter was diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder in July 2008, shortly after his 5th birthday. In December 2009, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Carter has always been full of energy and rarely napped, even as a baby, but his interests never included Lego or Thomas the Tank Engine. Early on, his obsessions were animals and the alphabet.

Carter would line everything up alphabetically and made sure all his toys were in order.

“[Carter] could tell you just about anything you wanted to know about any animal, including their scientific name,” says Carter’s mom, Angela Ajamie, L.M.T., of Grafton, Massachusetts. “When he was 3, he spelled [with blocks] ALBATROSS on the living room floor. When I asked him how he knew how to spell that word, he answered, ‘I read it in the dictionary.’ Carter could read Dr. Seuss books by the age of two-and-a-half.”

Meeting Children Where They Are

Pediatric massage therapists are taught to meet children where they are and help them connect with the world around them.

Children, parents and other health care providers have commented on the fact that pediatric massage therapists can make a child feel more comfortable in clinical and other settings where their interventions are employed.

Research indicates pediatric massage therapy also lessens anxiety and stress.

For each child, there is no exact protocol to follow, which means the same massage strokes, activities or songs we sing may change from moment to moment.

Communication and engagement are often stressful for the child, but are imperative in a session, which should be child directed.

This communication and engagement may include a series of gestures, hand placements, nonverbal gestures or nonlanguage sounds.

The massage therapist should take the time necessary to find the correct method of communication, and respect the child’s need for the therapist to communicate in a way that best serves each individual child.

“The individuality and uniqueness of each child is one of the biggest challenges in working with children on the autism spectrum, and also one of the biggest rewards,” says Elizabeth Schroeder, occupational therapist and massage therapist at Children’s Mercy.

“These differences make it nearly impossible for there to be any one trick or treatment that works with all children on the spectrum,” she said. “Each therapy session looks and feels different between each child and between each session for one child.”

Pediatric massage therapists provide touch therapies to children in a variety of settings, including the hospital, therapy centers and private practice.

In all settings, connecting with the children is important; just as important is connecting with parents.

Mothers and fathers may have questions about pediatric massage techniques, application and benefits.

Taking the time to answer questions and, when possible, providing hands-on demonstrations, may make the difference between connecting with parents or not.


Educating children, parents and other health care professionals can help make a therapeutic session successful.

“Many children won’t just hop up on the table and tell you their ailments,” says Podd. “A pediatric massage therapist can make a parent and child more comfortable, take time with the child, and use different techniques that might help the child feel at ease.”

Working with pediatric clients means you not only work with them, but also their parents, and in some cases, their health care team.

Using a strategy to ensure a collaborative approach is essential.

Being respectful of specific culture, time and priorities for the client, family and team is imperative.

“In regard to working with health care team members, the therapist should be prepared to educate the team about massage,” says Schroeder. “It is the therapist’s job to educate the team about massage, touch and how they can use it appropriately in their own tasks with the child.”


Read the full article via Massage Magazine.

Learn more about The Division of Developmental and Behavioral Sciences at Children's Mercy.