Massage & Bodywork for Autism
Massage & Bodywork for Autism

Massage & Bodywork for Autism

By Joellie Gonseth , BS, LMT

Massage & Bodywork for Autism

By Joellie Gonseth , BS, LMT

As a (former) professional educator for a public school system, it was particularly inspiring to work with students on the Autistic spectrum. Exceptional student education (ESE) teachers in my district were encouraged to work thoughtfully and creatively with these students and it saddens me when I hear derogatory comments about teachers who dedicate their lives to educate in what can be an extremely difficult (and sometimes dangerous) atmosphere. Of the many difficult aspects to deal with was the multitude of opinions and beliefs surrounding the causes and treatment of Autism. No matter what my personal thoughts were, I was required to work within the parent's or caregiver's belief system.  

Because federal law requires that teachers use "scientifically-based practices" when working with all children, it is essential that peer-reviewed and differential research (using more than one type of touch modality in a study) are used when determining efficacy. As many of us in massage therapy field know, valid research studies are often slow to keep up with the many different modalities. As a massage therapist for the last 25 years, I was surprised how little my colleagues in both the educational system and the field of massage knew about some of the helpful therapies that are currently being studied and are available to them. Many of these therapies can have an extremely positive impact on the lives of those on the spectrum. 

While teachers may not always be interested or have the time or training to implement or promote some of the many exciting therapies being studied and utilized with this disorder, we as healthcare providers can certainly offer them.  When asked by fellow teachers, behavior analysts, and other educational professionals for modalities that can be scientifically validated with peer-reviewed studies, here are a few that I provided them:

Deep Pressure Massage

One of the features of Autism is sensory process disorder where children lose their ability to feel pleasure through touch. This results in the rejection or avoidance of touch disrupting their ability to bond with their parent or caregiver. They also lose the ability to enjoy physical contact which means that they cannot be comforted in the way more typical children can. As a consequence, they become withdrawn and socially unreceptive to others contributing to the abnormal behaviors and social delays often seen in those with autism. The good news is that while the sensory nerves that are mediated with appropriate touch can be damaged, that damage can be reduced and often eliminated. 

Sometimes called Qigong Sensory Treatment (QST), deep pressure massage is a proven, touch-based autism treatment for children developed by Dr. Louisa Silva. Designed for parents to perform for 15 minutes each day for up to two years, it helps to normalize sensory issues and reduce or eliminate symptoms of autism. It is deep pressure (not deep tissue) and does not involve stroking movements. Some see results within 30 days of treatment.  A distinct treatment, QST massage for autism helps children feel comfortable and connected to others while affording them normal development thus improving lifetime outcomes.

According to many peer-reviewed studies five months of treatment can:

  • Sensory problems improved by 38 percent; touch improved by 49 percent
  • Autistic behavior decreased by 32 percent while social skills increased;
  • Children were more affectionate and receptive language increased up to 18 percent
  • Parental stress decreased by 44 percent

​After two years of treatment: 

  • There was 100 percent recovery of the sense of touch
  • The average decrease of autism severity was 44 percent
  • Over 50 percent of high-functioning children moved off the spectrum

The basic principles of QST are easy to learn and impart to the most important people in the child's life: their parents or caregivers. Deep pressure massage involves sessions of  five to 15 minutes daily along with acupuncture channels that often include "squishies"—deep joint and muscle compression. The beauty of involving the parents is two-fold:

1. The therapy provides an opportunity for parents to be involved in their child's therapy; and

2. It makes the autistic individual more receptive to other therapies which can also accelerate the healing process.

This type of therapy provides demonstrable improvement in parent-child bonding and increases their ability to calm themselves.  Parents reported that the treatments brought them closer together and strengthened their relationships while increasing their children’s self-awareness. Having worked in a classroom where most of my students disliked being touched in any way, I could always tell which parents were working with their children with touch-based activities. It made a huge difference in their ability to calm themselves, relate to others, and process information. 

In my view, unless some form of deep tissue therapy is done daily as a prerequisite to other forms of hands-on therapies, it is extremely difficult to achieve a positive outcome no matter what modality you are using.  I have heard of practitioners chasing their autistic clients around the room to facilitate treatment because their clients could not stay still. This, in my view, is completely unwarranted. It's also important to understand that no matter how well you communicate or think you are communicating with this population, it can easily be misinterpreted because their perception of touch is distorted. Therefore, it is vitally important (in my view, mandatory) to have the parent or guardian in the room at all times during therapy and to consider their understanding of appropriateness at all times. 


Most of us in the massage realm have heard of Reiki. But what we may not be aware of is the research being done on this modality and its effect on those with autism. Reiki is a healing technique based on the principle that the therapist can channel healing energy into the patient and activate the natural healing processes of the body and restore physical and emotional well-being.

In an article in Autism/Asperger’s Digest Magazine in 2000, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PH.D., Coordinator for Integrative Psychiatry and System Medicine, Program in Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona, College of Medicine, Tucson, Arizona, said the following:

“We have done a pilot study of Reiki massage for autistic children. The preliminary results are encouraging, especially when the parents are taught the Reiki along with visualization in between formal appointments with the therapist. The use of Reiki by parents and therapists appears to encourage communication; especially non-verbal communication children are calmer and have less self-stimulation.”

Another study of Reiki and transcendental meditation showed a significant decrease in post-therapy seizure disorders.

Movement Based Therapies

Having an extensive background in various systems of functional muscle assessment, I have used these movements in my classroom with great success. Movement-based learning uses techniques that build new neural pathways that improves reading comprehension, focus, vision, and hearing. It helps to balance the right and left hemispheres thereby enabling a shift from reflexive action to more effective balanced ways of thinking. Brain Gym utilizes simple, developmental movements to stimulate brain function without stress or injury. Children naturally explore these movements as they grow and mature (i.e. crawling).

In one study, thirty-eight children with autism were given movement therapy in small groups led by a trained movement therapist.  After two months of twice weekly sessions, the movement therapy versus the control children exhibited decreased time wandering, increased on-task behavior, decreased negative responses to being touched, and less time resisting the teacher.

Other modalities I have utilized that have had peer reviewed studies done with extremely positive outcomes include music therapy and acupuncture/acupressure and I will explore those and others in future articles.

Those on the Autistic spectrum could benefit greatly from various massage or complimentary modalities. Working with the parents or guardians and proper training, however, is key.


Hartshorn, K., Olds, L., Field, T., Delage, J., Cullen, C. & Escalona, A. (2001). Creative movement therapy benefits children with autism. Early Child Development and Care, 166, 1-5.

Hannaford, C. (2005). Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head. Salt Lake City: Great River Books.

Kumar A, R., & Krurup, P. (2003). Changes in the isoprenoid pathway with transcendental meditation and Reiki healing practices in seizure disorder. Neurology India, 51(2), 211-214.

Mehl-Madrana, L. (2000). Effective Therapies for Autism and other Developmental Disorders. Autism Asperger's Digest. Future Horizons, Inc. Retrieved from:

Nagarker, R., Rokade, P. Dr., Malwade, M. Dr., Kalam, A.P.J Abdul (2018). Effectiveness of brain gym activity on quality of life in autism spectrum disorder. International J. of Healthcare and Biomedical Research, Volume: 06, Issue: 02, January 2018, 11-16 11 ISSN: 2319-7072 College of Physiotherapy, Pravara Institute of Medical Sciences ( DU ) , Loni , India PIMS, Loni. Retrieved from:

Silva, L., Schalock, M., Ayres, R., Bunse, C., & Budden, S. (2009). Qigong Massage Treatment for Sensory and Self-Regulation Problems in Young Children with Autism: A Randomized Controlled Trial. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63, 423-432.   

Silva, L., Ayres, R., & Schalock, M. (2011). A Model and Treatment for Autism at the Convergence of Chinese Medicine and Neuroscience: First 130 Cases. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, 17(6):421-429.