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Can Massages help sensory children?

Can Massages help sensory children?

Autism and Sensory Processing Disorders can lead to severe sensory dysregulation, agitation, disconnection and distress. A small number of academic studies and a much larger amount of anecdotal feedback from parents and carers suggests that regular massage therapy may well offer huge benefits to adults and children affected by ASD and SPD.

How to approach massages for children with sensory processing disorders

There is no doubt that massage can be beneficial to everyone and anyone, and because we can all do it with a little practice it is easy to access and low cost. Although children and adults with Autism and/or Sensory Processing disorder can be extremely sensitive to touch, with a careful approach and respect for their personal boundaries we can explore this wonderful way of bonding and connecting in a non-verbal way. When children have little or no language it can be an extra special activity for parents/carers, helping to bridge the gap in communication.


Trust your intuition and be gentle

It's important to explore carefully and never force any activity on your sensitive child. Some children may need the activity scheduled in at a predictable time, some may be happy for small amounts of contact through the course of the day. Always trust your intuition about your child, no one knows them like you do, and follow their lead where you can. It may help to give visual or predictable verbal support. For some a social story may be appropriate. Some may only be able to tolerate the gentlest of touches, others may need very deep pressure and firm hands or massage tools.

With my non-verbal son we had a comfortable area set up in our living area with a box of massage tools and we ventured into it together when he approached, so he was in control during the day. We also had some resources in his bedroom so we could investigate as part of the sensory bedtime wind down routine. Over the years we explored thoroughly and eventually discovered he liked low light levels with a star projector, classical music on a low volume, furry materials to snuggle into. Aromatherapy was also a big hit.

Now at 20 years old he will leap happily into a chair for a foot or head massage with a massive grin on his face and regularly hooks his legs over me when we are watching TV for a bonus leg rub. He has found ways to guide us and gained a few words to help us know what he needs. It has become an interwoven part of daily life. But when we started he was extremely touch averse, never still for a moment, and very hard to engage. So, this could be a long road of gentle persistence for you and your child. Massage provides proprioceptive input, this is vital for sensory regulation. Seratonin is also released, an essential component for calming and creating positive feelings and sensations. Massage, particularly before bedtime can slow things down and calm the whole nervous system. It can improve sleep and reduce meltdowns. It can also be a gateway to more therapeutic tools such as compression, although we highly recommend you seek a Sensory Integration trained Occupational Therapist to assist you on your journey if you can.

Benefits of massages for special needs children

  1. Sensory Regulation: We know that massage can really help the nervous system find balance. It can help promote feelings of calm and happy. It can really enhance the life of children with SEN. For hyposensitive children it can wake up the senses and sensations. For hypersensitive children it can encourage slower movement and focus. Even if your child is bouncing around the room constantly a little massage on one part of the body when the opportunity arises has benefit. Touch can be a very powerful way of connecting with the body as a whole, even when it is focussed in one area.
  2. Secure attachment: For children with disabilities, particularly around communication, massage offers a fantastic experience to bond and connect regularly in a way that helps the child feel the responsiveness, love and care of their care-giver. When a child is physically and actively loved in this way it promotes calming feel-good hormones without the need for words. It increases the child's feelings of safety in their environment, reducing anxiety. This can lead over time to increases in social relatedness in all environments.
  3. Body and Limb awareness: Some children are unable to sense or picture where their body parts are, especially with their eyes closed. Talking through which parts of the body you are working on can help the child gain awareness of how that part of the body feels and where it is. This can also lead to improvement in co-ordination and movement over time.
  4. Reducing sensitivity: This is a big one for us at Sensory Smart and we talk to parents about it all the time. The number one reason parents find us is when there is a sensitivity to a vital piece of clothing, such as socks. Massage and touch can reduce sensory sensitivity over time. Again though we stress that it is vital to take any of these activities at your child’s pace and in their comfort zone, and it is likely to be in small steps and tolerance varying day to day. If you get some success talk to your OT about the Wilbarger Protocol and whether it might be suitable for your child.
  5. Focus and response: Children find it easier to focus on tasks after a massage activity, they may become more responsive to verbal cues and take part in their daily activities more easily due to feeling calmer.
  6. Sleep: Bedtime routine including massage and relaxing activities is likely to lead to better sleep (although I hasten to add with sensory children you may need to explore a bit more around compression for them to be able to fully relax into sleep – again, speak with your OT if possible).
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