Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork for Autism Spectrum Disorders

When you think of treatment options for autism, do you think of massage?  I know I didn’t. So when I was offered the opportunity to read Virginia S. Cowen’s book, Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork for Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Guide for Parents and Caregives, I readily agreed.

Massage as a Complementary Therapy
Virginia Cowen is a massage therapist, exercise physiologist, and Yoga and Pilates instructor. She is not asserting that massage is THE treatment option for autism, but rather, she believes it can be used to complement other treatment options. Massage can address sensory, motor, and touch issues; all of which can be problems for children with autism.

What is Massage and Bodywork?
Cowen defines them both in her book as:

By definition, massage is a general term used to describe manipulation of the soft tissues of the body that is done for therapeutic purposes. This manipulation can include techniques such as stroking, pressing, kneading, along with joint movements such as stretching. It can also include efforts to manipulate the human energy biofield. Bodywork is a term that is used to describe different types of energy and movement-based styles. Some forms of bodywork include breathing, stretching, and conversation and are used to engage the client as an active participant in the therapeutic process. (pages 19-20)

Benefits to Massage
Cowen believes that children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can benefit in many ways from massage. The benefits can include:

The benefits of massage though is dependent on a qualified therapist using the appropriate techniques to meet the needs of a child with ASD.

Cowen’s goal is to help educate parents on massage and bodywork, so that they can make an informed decision on using it as a complementary treatment option for their child. The book is divided into three main parts described below.

The Senses and Massage
Part 1 describes massage and bodywork and how they can benefit a child with ASD. Then the senses and nervous system are presented. The author also examines tactile sensation: “the perception of touch” (p. 61) and kinesthetic awareness: “the awareness of the position of the body” (p. 72). Finally, there is a chapter describing how touch and massage works. In summary, Cowen states:

The same theories that are used to explain the benefits of brushing, joint compression, and active movement also explain the benefits of massage and bodywork. (p. 89)

Different Types of Massage
Part 2 describes the different types of massage and bodywork. They are divided into the following categories:

  • Anatomy-oriented massage, such as deep tissue massage and neuromuscular massage;
  • Energy-based bodywork, such as reflexology, Shiatsu, Reiki, and Thai massage; and
  • Other styles of touch-based therapeutic bodywork, such as Watsu, and Hellerwork.

One therapy I have always been curious about is craniosacral therapy. I had heard about this therapy for ASD, but can not say that I really understood it. It is listed under anatomy-oriented massage and is described as a:

gentle touch that is focused on the head and spine...aims to promote the flow of fluid with the central nervous system by eliminating restrictions caused by tissues and bones that surround the fluid. (p. 119).

There is little research supporting craniosacral therapy for children with ASD, but there are anecdoctal reports that it has helped reduce self-stimulatory behavior.

Massage and Issues to Consider
Part 3 provides information on how to decide on an appropriate type of massage and how to select a practitioner. Virginia also has a section looking at the laws regulating massage and concludes with things that parents should consider when contemplating massage for their child with ASD.

Before I delved into this book, I wasn’t sure how much could be said or presented on massage and the child with ASD. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this book and learning about massage and bodywork as it relates to autism. Virginia Cowen did a thorough job of presenting the field of massage. Any parent who is interested in this topic for their child will not be disappointed in this book and the amount of information provided.

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Danette Schott, M.A. About Danette Schott, M.A.

Using her research background, Danette founded S-O-S Research to provide information on "invisible" special needs to parents, teachers, and other professionals. Currently she is Executive Editor at Special-Ism, focusing on the challenges or the -Isms experienced by children with various special needs, such as high functioning autism, ADHD, anxiety, mental illness, and Sensory Processing Disorder.

  • Sharilyn Nestor

    Wow, great blog. Thanks for the post.

  • Phillip Lawrence (Massage Therapist)

    Thanks for the post. I heard about the benefits of massage for Autism when i did my course and wanted to look further into it. This sounds like the book i’ve been looking for.

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  • Judy Endow

    I use massage as a tool for sensory regulation, but the therapist needs to use minimal pressure, which at first seemed counter intuitive since I also use deep pressure for sensory regulation. Turns out my body can’t take both deep pressure and massage at the same time! I find these sorts of seeming contradictions interesting.

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