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Nuturing Touch

Jamal Apr 15, 2012

Massage therapy helps calm & center children on the autism spectrum

Ruth Elaine Hane was a difficult child. Now a 67-year old grandmother in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she didn't talk until she was nearly five.

She banged her head when she didn't get her way. She shied away from social gatherings, instead doing her own thing, often recklessly.

She suffered from night terrors—a sleep disorder with increased brain activity that can include screaming, sweating and rapid heart beat—and would often spend nights huddled under her bed, or climbing through the second floor window via the drainpipe, hanging with the neighborhood cat, often until 4 a.m.

"I did dangerous things and didn't realize they were dangerous," she says. She was impervious to the social and verbal cues of others. On the school playground, she would wonder why the other students would suddenly run inside when the teacher appeared. "The other children knew the teacher's hand wave meant 'recess is over,'" she says. "I had no idea."

It wasn't until she was 54—after marriage, two children and divorce—that her particular life experiences made sense. She soon received her own diagnosis of high-functioning autism.

A successful interior and fashion designer, Hane's diagnosis prompted her to seek information, education and adaptation skills. It also prompted a career change. "I decided I'd rather work on making people's lives better spiritually and emotionally."

She became a reiki master, and trained in shiatsu, zero balancing and other forms of massage. Today, clients with autism comprise a good part of her practice. She knows through experience that touch, on many levels, can help those with autism.

Understanding the Spectrum

"Massage puts the system into a more relaxed state where the heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and the system is running at a slower pace," says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, which has conducted several studies on autism and touch.

This research has become especially relevant as autism's numbers continue to climb at a rate of approximately 10 percent to 17 percent annually. Today, one in 150 children will be diagnosed with autism. With boys, who are affected four times as much as girls, the rate could be as high as 1 in 94.

Some of these children are autistic from birth. However, there appears to be an increase in regressive autism, which starts at approximately 18 to 24 months, when parents see a baffling loss of words and social skills in their children.

Autism is referred to as a spectrum disorder, which means its symptoms can range from mild to acute, and can vary from person to person, even within the different categories.

Many children have trouble reading normal social cues, as Hane did. "It's hard to comply with society's unspoken rules," she says. "It can be very lonely and isolating." Additionally, most have sensory integration issues, where the sights, sounds, feels, smells and noises of the surrounding world can feel too bright, too loud, too harsh and too overpowering.

For example, Temple Grandin, PhD, a Colorado State University animal science professor and author of "Emergence: Labeled Autistic" about her journey as a fully autistic child to successfully functioning adult, couldn't stand scratchy clothes against her skin. "The school bell hurt my ears, like a dentist's drill hitting a nerve," she explains. "If people talked too fast, it sounded like gibberish."

Trusting Touch

No one can say exactly what causes autism and its related disorders, including Asperger's Syndrome, an autism- like condition usually without language delay, and various Pervasive Development Disorders (PDDs).

Here's what we do know: The brain develops differently in children with autism. A 2004 Annals of Neurology study reported inflammation in autistic brains. Most experts also agree that a genetic component to autism exists and that it's usually triggered by something, such as birth complications, environmental toxins, diet, other hereditary factors or a virus, for example.

We know that massage, along with a host of other therapies, including speech, occupational, nutritional and behavioral, can help—often significantly. Moderate pressure, says Field, stimulates the vagus nerve, one of the 12 cranial nerves in the brain, which often underperforms in those with autism. "When you increase vagal activity," she says, "you get stimulation in various parts of your body."

You slow the heart rate, for example, which can increase the ability to focus. One TRI study compared a control group of children who received moderate pressure and smooth, stroking movements for 15-minute sessions, twice a week for four weeks. "We found [the children] were able to be more on task from massage therapy," says Field. In another study, massage also helped the children sleep better, bringing things full circle.

"Some suggest a reason these children can't stay on task is because they're not sleeping well," says Field. "And we know that massage is very effective for sleep." Since these children often have more severe sleep problems than average, she posits, the sleep benefits from massage may be greater for them.

Stimulating vagal activity may also help these chil dren screen out background noise, says Field, increasing their capacity to listen and speak. Tina Allen, LMT, founder of Liddle Kidz, a children's health and nurturing touch organization, has seen these positive results from massage herself, starting with one of her very first clients with autism, a five-year-old girl named Annie.

"Her mom told me that Annie didn't like to talk to anyone," she says. "I was a last resort." Allen began the massage using props from a toy bag she kept in her office. "I told her a story where the race car drove around her back," she says. "Then a soft animal 'walked' on her arm." When Allen was done, Annie looked directly into her eyes, smiled, and asked for another story. "Her mom was almost in tears," says Allen. "She said she couldn't remember another time that she had reacted in such a way."

Allen's work with children with autism led her to a 1998 study that confirmed one of her intuitions: Lower levels of oxytocin—the so-called love hormone—were detected in the blood plasma of severely social-averse children with autism. The finding made perfect sense to Allen since oxytocin makes us feel warm, relaxed and stress-free, all gifts to those on the autism spectrum.

Taking Your Time

Of course, none of these results matter if you can't touch the children in the first place, so proceed with caution. Field says, in fact, that finding a way to touch these children was a concern during the first TRI study. How would they, she wondered, massage these often touch-averse children? The children, it turned out, were receptive—once the researchers took any surprises out of the equation.

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