For many families, the interest and demand for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) continues to grow. For parents of children with special needs, the use of alternative treatments is even more common. One recent study found that 33 percent of parents reported using CAM for their child within the past year, with therapeutic massage (TM) being one of the most popular therapies. In fact, therapeutic massage is one of the most widely-used CAM therapies in the United States, according to National Health Interview Survey data.
For children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), several types of therapies are used, each of which addresses specific ASD-associated symptoms. Because ASD is so complex, each child will present with different needs but the end goal is always the same—to increase the quality of life and the functional independence of the child.
How Massage Helps
Therapeutic massage can be integrated into a child’s overall plan of care. When TM is added as an adjunct therapy to a child’s Occupational Therapy (OT), Speech Therapy (ST) or Physical Therapy (PT) plan, parents can see significant results and improvement in cognitive skills. Some of the main characteristics of ASD are impairments in social interaction and impaired communication. TM has shown to promote more on-task and social relatedness behavior during play observations. Over time, TM sessions from a skilled therapist and/or at home from the parents can provide relaxation, help with body awareness, help the child to become more accustomed to tactile stimulation and has also helped decrease issues with sleeping. In addition, massage has helped increase muscle tone in children with ASD, which in turn has helped increase fine and gross motor skills.
What to Expect from a Massage Session
The massage session is custom-designed with the individual child in mind and is based on their response to tactile stimulation. The massage can take place during the child’s OT, ST or PT sessions or the parent can opt for a private session where the massage will be given in a warm, dimly lit, quiet room with soft music. The child may be lying down, sitting or held during a session. More often than not, a therapist will provide pediatric massage through clothing; otherwise, a parent must be present at all times.
Many times the first session will focus on getting acclimated with the child. Before the therapist begins massage, he or she will always ask for permission from the child. Because transitioning from one activity to the next may be difficult for the child, it’s important to communicate throughout the entire session and assure them that there will be no surprises.
Depending on the child’s tactile needs, a variety of different textures should be available for the child to explore, like bath mitts, a towel, cuddly toys, paint rolls/brushes, scrub brushes, hand/finger puppets, silk or velvet fabrics, etc. Skin-to-skin contact is best, but the child may need to satisfy a sensory need using these items. Light touch is avoided as this can be unpleasant. Firm strokes and compressions are typically preferred for a child diagnosed with ASD.