Massage therapy can be adapted to accommodate patients with autism. The massage techniques are slightly modified to help autistics become more comfortable with human touch. Clinical results have shown great improvements in communication between autistic patients and their caregivers, leading to a better quality of life.
Autism, or Kanner's Syndrome, is a developmental disorder with early onset that causes both children and adults to seem withdrawn or dissociated from their environments. Patients may respond defensively to being touched, and tend to respond negatively to certain textures. This improper or incomplete maturation of the tactile system can be treated with therapeutic massage, where the senses are stimulated gradually with a safe and nurturing approach. Massage therapists who specialize in Autism have to slowly develop a very consistent relationship with their autistic patients in order to make progress with the treatment.
Interestingly, autistics are more sensitive to light touch than heavy touch. Glancing, inconsistent, or brief skin contact sends irregular neural signals to the brain where they interfere with and over-stimulate the central nervous system. This makes it difficult to perform organized behavior or to concentrate. Massage on the other hand, utilizes deep tissue massage and joint compression, which do not send such confusing signals to the brain cortex.
According to data collected by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), Autism affects 1 in 150 children in America, over half of which have opted for alternative treatment methods like massage. There are clinical studies to support the use of massage as a complementary therapy. For example, a small-scale intervention was performed on just under 50 autistic children using Qi Gong Sensory Training. With weekly massage sessions over the course of 5 months, both the teachers and parents of these children noticed less autistic behavior and improved social and language skills.
Additionally, young autistic children between the ages of 3 and 10 have been shown to respond well to a sensory integration therapy that incorporated massage. More specifically, a Thai massage technique was used over the course of eight weeks with a variety of positive effects. This form of massage uses stretches and yoga poses to energize the patient while stimulating circulation and challenging flexibility. Patients experienced an immediate reduction of anxiety, and outside of the clinic, they enjoyed higher quality sleep, heightened concentration, and more positive social interactions.
Those with Autism can also benefit greatly from a deep massage of the foot and leg muscles. Children with Autism tend to walk on their toes, so the feet and legs become tense. This form of massage targets the gastrocnemius and soleus to fully relax the feet, allowing the patient to walk flat-footed for at least a short period of time following the massage.
Massage also promotes relaxation and breathing regulation. Breathing exercises often work to calm autistic patients and reduce hyperactivity.
Overall, with the proper patience and communication techniques, massage therapy can be extended to autistic patients. By providing consistent, nurturing human contact and touch, massage can overcome some of the defensive tendencies characteristic of the tactile system in those with autism. While massage is not a cure for this disability, it can help autistic patients to relax, communicate more effectively, and greatly improve their quality of life.