Autism and related pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) are now estimated to affect one in every hundred children across Canada. Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are characterized by varying degrees of difficulty with social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication. Significantly for massage therapists, patients with ASDs also frequently display high levels of tactile sensitivity, and shy away or withdraw from touch.
So how can massage be beneficial to a patient who instinctively dislikes being touched? While it may seem counterintuitive, studies have shown that, with a little patience, regular massage therapy can have hugely positive results for autistic patients, improving their quality of life, and even making them more receptive to human affection. Nonetheless, treatment of patients with ASDs is a sensitive process, and one that massage therapy students need to approach with caution and appropriate training.
Autism spectrum disorder refers to a group of complex neurodevelopment disorders with a wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of disability. The autism spectrum was redefined in 2013 to include previous diagnoses of autism, as well as Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and childhood disintegrative disorder.
Within this spectrum, each individual case is unique, and therapeutic massage program students will find that each patient’s issues can be radically different. In addition to social interaction and physical contact, individuals with this disorder sometimes have difficulty with motor coordination, display repetitive behaviors, and can have sleep and gastrointestinal issues. Autism may also be accompanied by intellectual disabilities. The sensitivity to touch common among people with ASDs stems from dysfunction of the tactile system, and can cause them to withdraw or react aggressively. This is due to abnormal neural signals, which cause the brain to become over stimulated. As a result, many autistic patients experience very little physical contact in their daily lives.
When treating an autistic patient, massage therapy college graduates understand the importance of proceeding slowly. Therapists may find it beneficial to explain what they are planning to do in detail before the session, possibly even demonstrating it for the patient. To begin with, patients may only tolerate being massaged for short periods, and initial sessions might only last 15-20 minutes.
Gradually however, as they develop trust with the RMT, they become more open to longer sessions. Interestingly, lighter touch massage is more likely to overstimulate an autistic patient, so therapists usually utilize deep massage techniques, often along with joint compression and stretching.
Studies have shown that people with ASDs who receive regular massage can display greater attentiveness, less erratic behaviour, and even improved communication skills. The relaxing effect of massage can help improve sleep patterns in autistic patients, while it has also been shown to relieve pain in tight muscles and reduce gastrointestinal dysfunction.
Over time, the positive experience of touch gained through massage therapy can help autistic patients become more receptive to physical contact in general. Indeed, many parents have observed their autistic children becoming more affectionate as treatment went on. RMTs may teach parents techniques to massage the children at home, helping them to further build trust with the child.
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