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There are potential benefits for the use of Essential Oils (EO) for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The right oil or combination of oils can be a supportive, less invasive supplemental therapeutic strategy for some kids. Certain oils can bring about a calming mood or help a child focus. Emerging clinical research on this topic aims to identify the oil(s) that are proven most helpful (see info at end of article). This research is important because some oils can cause an allergic reaction, or even a seizure.

It’s important for caregivers and parents to have a basic understanding about essential oils, so they—alongside the child’s therapy team—can make an informed decision about how to use this centuries-old herbal remedy.

Let’s focus on 3 important questions:

  • What is an essential oil? 
  • How does an essential oil work?
  • Do essential oils have a proven health benefits for children with Autism?

Keep in mind, even with the basic information we’re sharing here, it’s wise to consult with a certified clinical aromatherapist or naturopathic physician experienced with using essential oils with children who have ASD.

What is an Essential Oil?

An essential oil (EO) is the natural fragrant essence extracted from different parts of a plant: flowers, leaves, bark, roots, fruit peel, and berries. The oil is the most concentrated and potent of plant extracts—up to 75-100 times more than dried herbs. 

A single essential oil contains hundreds of chemical components, each one having unique properties of its own. In short, essential oils are very complex substances whose integrity and purity are affected by the time of harvest, method of harvesting, extraction process, and storage process—even before the product is bottled and shipped for retail sale.

Essential oils have been used for centuries throughout the world for everything from skin care to treatment for serious health conditions. In Europe, where standards for EO are much stricter than in the U.S., EO are used in both spa and medical treatments. In the U.S., EO use has had exponential growth as over-the-counter herbal remedies. It’s important to note that in the U.S., the FDA does not regulate EO for medicinal use the way it does other medicines, but it does regulate the claims an EO manufacturing company can make about an EO.

How does an essential oil work?

The therapeutic benefit of EO lies in the power of the sense of smell. Scent, by way of the olfactory nerve, can trigger emotions and memories. For example, the smell of fresh baked apple pie brings up a holiday memory. The neural receptors for scent are linked to areas of the brain strongly associated with emotion and memory—both positive and negative. 

The potency of the scent of an individual or combination of EO can trigger an emotional or physical response, such as:

  • becoming more relaxed, 
  • being better able to focus on a task, or 
  • feeling more energized.

However, different people can react differently to the same oil. Frankincense can make one person feel relaxed, and another person feel agitated or nauseous.

These effects on mood or mental state occur in two ways: either though inhaling the oil’s scent through a diffuser or being applied in diluted form directly to the skin, usually on pulse points or in bath water.

Essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin without a carrier oil or lotion for dilution (for example, mixing a certain number of drops of peppermint oil with Jojoba oil). Direct application can cause a rash or more serious reactions. An EO should never be taken internally in food or beverage unless under supervision of a licensed healthcare practitioner. 

Do Essential Oils have Proven Health Benefit for Children with Autism?

In the last few years, blogs have exploded with testimonials about the benefits of EO for children with Autism. Overall, these personal case reports indicate that certain oils such as lavender, peppermint, and chamomile have positive effects. But case reports are only the first step. Every child is different; what seems beneficial for one child could be life-threatening for another. Clinical research is vitally important to the understanding how any new therapeutic approach for whom and in what circumstances.

The short answer to the question about whether or not EO are beneficial for children with Autism is “maybe.” It depends upon factors such as:

  • the child’s age, symptoms, known allergies, medications in use, etc.
  • the oil or oils being used and the quality of those oils, and
  • the reason for use (the desired benefit).

The more questions we ask, and the more care we take in investigating answers, the more likely we are likely to find safe, effective natural remedies to complement treatment for children with Autism. Below is one example of an ongoing clinical trail that is doing just that.

Clinical Research: Do Essential Oils Improve Sleep in Children with Autism?

Researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center set out to discover if EO can help children with Autism get to sleep. The ongoing study uses all the “gold standards” for clinical research. The study aims to find out if EO increase relaxation prior to bedtime and improve the quality of sleep for children with ASD (A very specific research question!). Researchers are comparing the safety and effectiveness of two mixtures of 18 essential oils. Mixture A is being tested in the first 3 months. A topical solution will be applied to the back of the neck and feet before school and at 20 minutes before bedtime the mixture will be diffused in the child’s bedroom and continue through the night. Some children will wear a watch-style recording device to measure sleep quality and movement during sleep. There will be a one-month break, then the research protocol will be repeated with Mixture B for another 3 months. If you’d like to get involved, contact the study director through this link.

The place to go, if you want to do your own research, is the U.S. medical research database, PubMed., and the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Database. Gold Standard Research uses a comparison group, controls for extraneous factors (such as playing music while giving an essential oil bath); and uses standardized tools.

Some examples of keyword searches are:

“essential oils (or aromatherapy) to improve sleep with children with Autism.” “peppermint essential oil, autism and focus on a performing a task”

“lavender essential oil effect on mood in children with Autism”

“essential oil side effects, children, Autism”

You can usually download a PDF of the article and share a copy with your child’s clinician to determine if the information applies to your child.

Resources

Essential Oils for Autism Treatment: Interview with Dr. Hollway of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. https://ecochildsplay.com/2016/01/25/essentials-oils-for-autism/ 

Best Essential Oils for Autism and ADHD—The Ultimate Guide.  AutismParenting.com

Williams, Tim I. (2006) “Evaluating Effects of Aromatherapy Massage on Sleep in Children with Autism: A Pilot Study.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, (3)3, 373–377. PMC. Web. 28 Nov. 2017.

National Library of Medicine. PubMed Health. Essential Oils

Levy, S. E., & Hyman, S. L. (2008). “Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 17(4), 803–ix. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2008.06.004

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2597185/pdf/nihms-71048.pdf 

Essential Oils Information Guide from Neal’s Yard Remedies

Professional Aromatherapy Associations

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.

Alliance of International Aromatherapists

Find a Naturopathic Doctor

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 

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