March 15, 2017

CC BY-NC by BékiPe

Massage therapy has been growing in popularity as a treatment for children with autism. Massage therapists provide deep pressure massage and therapeutic touch to children while avoiding light touch. These practitioners also train parents of children with autism in massage techniques that can be completed at bedtime. Therapists claim that the techniques used release serotonin in the brain, a chemical that helps give a person a sense of well being. Massage therapists and parents have reported positive results from massage therapy treatment, including more tolerance of touch, improved social communication with others, better sleep patterns, improved attention to task, and fewer adverse behaviors. Parents also report more bonding with their children.

Research does exist to support the claims made regarding massage therapy for children with autism. Many studies, however, involve small sample sizes, short study durations, and poor bias control. A research analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in March, 2011 looked at controlled clinical studies of any type of massage therapy for any subjects with autism. Conducted by the Korean Institute of Oriental Medicine, this analysis found that only 6 out of 132 published research studies met the criteria to be included in the analysis. The 6 studies analyzed showed that massage therapy did provide significant benefits in the areas of social communication, adaptive behavior, and sensory profile. These 6 studies failed to meet the standards of quality research in that they included small sample sizes, predefined primary outcome measures, inadequate controls, and a lack of follow up measures. The researchers determined that firm conclusions could not be drawn regarding the effectiveness of massage therapy for children with autism due to the poor design of these studies.

Dr. Kimberly A. Schreck and Dr. Richard M. Foxx, professors of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, have conducted research regarding effective methods for treating autism. In an article published in Currents, Spring/Summer 2013, Schreck and Foxx report that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the one treatment method for autism that research supports, with more than 40 years of appropriately designed studies showing the effectiveness of the method. Schreck and Foxx state that a child with autism may need up to 40 hours per week of ABA therapy and alternative therapies that do not have a solid basis in research, such as massage therapy, take away from the time that children could spend receiving effective treatment.

In spite of the lack of solid research, massage therapists and parents continue to be proponents of massage therapy as an effective treatment for autism. Massage therapy providers cite the research included in the analysis conducted by the Korean Institute of Oriental Medicine as evidence of the effectiveness of this treatment, but the Korean analysis and the research conducted by Schreck and Foxx indicate that the evidence supporting massage therapy is not conclusive. Solid, properly designed research on massage therapy for children with autism is needed before parents can make informed decisions regarding this type of treatment.

About the author 

Janet Meydam

Janet Meydam holds a B.S. degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and an M.S. degree in Occupational Therapy from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has worked in healthcare and education settings for 25 years and writes extensively about people who have disabilities.

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