Essential Oils for Sensory Processing Dysregulation and Autism
Sharon L. Leake
Autism is the most prevalent childhood disability in the United States. According to the DSM-5, abnormal sensory responses are included in the core diagnostic criteria; although not everyone with sensory dysregulation will have autism. An accepted, evidence-based, complimentary therapy for children with ASD is massage therapy (music and dance therapies are also being studied as evidence-based treatments for proprioceptive and auditory). Massage is safe, nurturing, and can enhance sensory integration, but unfortunately, cannot be applied on the go. Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that is easy, safe and discreet to use.
Studies have identified an abnormal tactile pattern that is specific to children with ASD. This includes painful withdrawal from normal touch (allodynia) and hyposensitivity to injurious stimuli (hypoesthesia). Some of my favorite massage modalities used to improve stereotypical autistic behavior include: Thai Traditional Massage, CranioSacral Therapy, and Qigong Massage. When combined with the use of aromatherapy, the therapeutic effects can be greatly enhanced.
Children with ASD have a dysfunctional sensory system. Sometimes one or more senses will be over or under reactive to stimulation. Such sensory problems may lead to behaviors such as spinning, rocking, and hand-flapping. Although the receptors for these senses are located in the peripheral nervous system, it is believed that the problem originates in the central nervous system.
Sensory integration normally focuses on tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive senses. These senses interconnections begin to form before birth and continue developing as the person matures and interacts with their environment. One sense that is often forgotten about is olfaction. A study comparing typically developing children to those with ASD showed that there is pronounced difference in sniff response to various pleasant verses unpleasant odors. The study found that the sniff response was highly predictive of the social affect component of autism, but not the restrictive and repetitive behavior component. So, to put it simply, the sniff-response measure is reflective of the mechanism involved with social impairment that is at the heart of ASD symptoms.
It only makes sense that we should treat all aspects of the sensory realm and not just those affecting the repetitive and restrictive behaviors that massage therapy is so good at. Over the last several years I have taken quite an interest in the use of essential oils, so I finally decided to enroll in an in-depth course and gain clinical certification to further my knowledge and repertoire. I was narrowing down schools when by chance I happened upon Heart of Herbs. After reading Demetria Clark’s biography and reviewing the quality of the courses that she offers, I enrolled that day. One of the many reasons that I began using essential oils was for my son’s behavioral problems, that I would later find out was part of the stereotypical autistic behavior that occurs due to sensory dysregulation.
Essential oils are not perfumes or fragrant oils, which contain artificial ingredients and possibly phthalates (which are very dangerous). Essential oils are derived from real plants and contain the true essence of the plant they came from. Just like any other therapy, aromatherapy should be individualized. Not all children with autism have the same sensory or biochemical needs. If you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism.
Many children with ASD have digestive problems. Historically, peppermint has been used to soothe digestive complaints. One study has shown that enteric coated peppermint oil capsules were effective in relieving symptoms of IBS. I’m not recommending the use of peppermint oil internally for children, but diluted properly abdominal massage with peppermint may help relieve some of the digestive troubles that children with ASD so frequently suffer with. Dr. William Dember, of the University of Cincinnati Psychology Department, discovered in a research study that inhaling peppermint oil increased mental accuracy of the students by up to 28%. In 2006, Dr. Bryan Raudenbush from Wheeling Jesuit University found that drivers exposed to peppermint were less frustrated, anxious and fatigued; they also stayed more alert! Dr. Raudenbush found that peppermint increased oxygen saturation and blood flow to the brain. This is one reason to carefully screen individuals, as the increased blood flow is the result of an increase in blood pressure! My son, who often gets stress/tension headaches and dizziness, finds relief from inhaling peppermint oil. – Always follow safety precautions when using essential oils.
Vetiver oil has been used by many children to help with symptoms of ADHD. ASD and ADHD symptoms often overlap to a degree. In fact, many children are initially diagnosed with ADHD before eventually receiving a diagnosis of ASD. Vetiver oil is calming, sedative, and antispasmodic (among other wonderful properties). Vetiver oil can be deeply relaxing and add a sense of security to those experiencing anxiety or fear. Try adding to your massage oil or to your evening bath!
Cedarwood was used by Native Americans to enhance spiritual communication. There are some claims that cedarwood essential oil aromatherapy can promote the release of serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin. Some texts say that it helps open the pineal gland. Cedarwood has a grounding action on emotions and can help relieve aggression, which is very beneficial for those who are prone to sensory overload (also known as melt downs!).
Lavender oil is my son’s favorite! Lavender essential oil has a calming effect on children with autism. It can help reduce anxiety, emotional distress, aggressive behavior and improve sleep quality while improving mood, concentration and memory. Lavender can help reduce tension headaches that can be a common problem of children with ASD (and their parents). Japanese studies indicate Lavender has an affect on the autonomic, sympathetic, and parasympathetic nervous systems as well as the adrenals. Children with ASD have underactive parasympathetic nervous systems and overactive sympathetic nervous systems. Lavender is one of the most used oils amongst therapists because it has such a wide range of uses and is typically regarded as very safe.
Mandarin essential oil can also help with digestive problems, insomnia and anxiety. It has a sweet citrus scent that is uplifting and can relieve irritability and stress. Blends beautifully with lavender or peppermint. Be aware of photosensitivity and do not use prior to sun exposure. Remember to dilute all essential oils with a carrier, like organic sweet almond, coconut, or olive. (I only use organic essential oils and carriers to avoid pesticide contaminants and interactions.)
Chamomile tea has always helped my son calm down and unwind. I even made chamomile lotion to soothe my daughters eczema, when prescription steroid cream only made it worse. When our nurse practitioner suggested trying chamomile essential oil as well, it was a welcome breath of fresh – aroma!
Chamomile is one of the most ancient herbs known to mankind. The flowers contain terpenoids and flavonoids contributing to its medicinal properties. Its many indications include: gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, allergies, eczema and other phlogistic skin conditions, anxiety, depression, hemorrhoids, rheumatic pain, inflammation and muscle spasms. Research has shown chamomile induces apoptosis of cancer cells, but not in healthy cells at similar doses. Chamomile has carminative actions, meaning it can help dispel gas. Two clinical trails have proven the efficacy of chamomile for the treatment of colic. Other health benefits were asserted in a study that showed drinking chamomile tea (five cups daily for 2 weeks) boosted the immune system and helped fight infections. Chamomile extracts exhibit benzodiazepine-like hypnotic activity, without the undesirable side-effects of the drug.
– A relatively low percentage of people are sensitive to chamomile and develop allergic reactions. People sensitive to ragweed and chrysanthemums, or other members of the Compositae family, are more prone to developing an allergy to Chamomile.
Essential oils are extremely potent and should always be diluted with a carrier before topical application to prevent skin irritation. I typically dilute essential oils 3 X more when using them on children, than what I use on healthy adults. If you have any dosage questions please consult with a Certified Aromatherapist or your health and wellness provider. There are also many books available on essential oil applications. A patch test is recommended before using essential oils topically. Essential oils should not be taken internally, unless under the direction of your healthcare provider.
The oils I discussed are only a sampling of many that may be beneficial for those with SPD and ASD. Remember, all children are unique. Not every oil is right for everybody; allow your child to help select the essential oil that they find soothing and appealing.
About the Author
Sharon Leake is the Managing Director at Holistic Health & Bodywork and Director of Clinical Assessment at VerteCore Technologies. She is a Manual Osteopath, Corrective Exercise Specialist, and Licensed Massage Therapist specializing in orthopedics, neuromuscular therapy, myofascial release, IASTM, CranioSacral therapy, pain management, lymphatic drainage and Eastern modalities such as, Ba Guan, Gua Sha, Ashiatsu and Thai Yoga. Sharon has a degree in Holistic Health and has studied and obtained certifications in orthomolecular nutrition, metabolic healing, Pilates and herbal medicine. She has also studied child development and has received evidence-based training for autism and self-regulation protocols for children with ASD, ADHD, and sensory disorders from the UC Davis Mind Institute.
You can learn more about bodywork and massage for ASD and SPD at bodywork.guru.
Keville, K and Green, M, Aromatherapy: A complete Guide to The Healing Art
International Journal of Neuroscience: Modulation of Cognitive Performance and Mood by Aromas of Peppermint and Ylang-Ylang
Wheeling Jesuit University: Study Finds That Peppermint and Cinnamon Lower Drivers’ Frustration and Increase Alertness
Srivastava, J.K. and Shankar, E., Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future, Molecular Medicine Reports, 2011 Feb 1.
Rozenkrantz, L., Zachor, D. and Sobel, N., A Mechanistic Link between Olfaction and Autism Spectrum Disorder, Journal of Current Biology, Elsevier, 2015 Jul 20
Want to become an Herbalist? Visit www.heartofherbs.com
Articles written by students are the opinions, research and voice of the student and not Heart of Herbs Herbal School. We encourage our students to explore and grow in their profession.
Disclaimer: For educational use only. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. Students articles reflect the views of the student and not necessarily Heart of Herbs Herbal School. Educational programs are available at www.heartofherbs.com and you can find all of Demetria Clark’s books at Amazon.
Information offered on Heart of Herb Herbal School websites, articles and blogs is for educational purposes only. Heart of Herb Herbal School makes neither medical claim, psychological claim or intends to diagnose or treat medical conditions. Links to external sites are for informational purposes only. Heart of Herbs Herbal School neither endorses them nor is in any way responsible for their content, we are currently not part of any affiliate programs. Readers must do their own research concerning the safety and usage of any herbs or supplements, this is your responsibility as consumer.