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:
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:
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 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.
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
Essential Oils Information Guide from Neal’s Yard Remedies
Professional Aromatherapy Associations
National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.
Find a Naturopathic Doctor
The day a family first learns about their child being diagnosed with Autism or ADHD can be one of mixed emotions, ranging from anxiety to sadness over the implications this news has for the child and the family. Amid the overwhelm, you may even experience relief in finally “knowing” what’s happening with your child’s social and emotional development. By adopting a mindful perspective and following a few essential tips, you can help empower everyone in your family to learn how to manage and live with a special needs behavioral diagnosis.
Special needs children are special not just because their behavior or development makes them different. They are special because of what they are capable of teaching us about ourselves, about how we view the world, and ultimately about how we behave.
As a parent or caregiver to a child who has Autism, it’s quite likely you’ll be asked to participate in a treatment approach called Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. It may sound intimidating but it’s really a quite simple, thorough and effective approach to helping a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. ABA has been used in schools, child development programs, clinical treatment programs, and even in fitness, healthcare, and sports programs among many other settings.
Applied Behavior Analysis is a systematic approach that applies psychological principles of how people learn to help change an undesired behavior. It is also used to help someone learn and maintain new behaviors that facilitate healthy functioning in real life situations. Essentially, if a behavior can be observed and measured, then ABA principles can be used to either increase or decrease the frequency and/or intensity of that behavior.
In treating Autism Spectrum Disorders, ABA aims to improve socially significant behaviors such as communication skills, gross and fine motor skills, eating and food preparation, personal hygiene and self-care, and work and academic skills. Therapists routinely assess strategies to ensure that improvement in a behavior can be directly attributed to the ABA plan.
How ABA Supports a Person with Autism
Getting Started with ABA
If ABA has been recommended for your family member with Autism, the first thing to take place is an in-depth analysis of the child’s current behaviors and how those behaviors meet certain needs in a particular environment. An ABA trained clinician will identify and discuss these behaviors and why they occur in certain settings (but maybe not in others). The objective is to determine ways to modify the behavior by looking at a variety of factors:
The clinician will work with you and your child to determine new skills that can be taught to appropriately change behavior while improving health, safety, functional skills, social relationships, and independence for your child.
What Makes ABA Different?
There are no “canned programs” in ABA; goals are always individualized to meet the unique needs of each child. How long ABA takes “to work” depends upon the child, family involvement and use of ABA strategies at home, and the behavior(s) that need to be changed or enhanced. Success is rewarded with positive reinforcement to maintain high motivation for improvement and maintenance of expected behavior. More so than many other types of interventions, clinicians track progress on specific strategies and behavior through collection and evaluation of data.
The Parent’s Role in ABA Treatment
Parents have a critical role in the child’s success in an ABA program. Your insights about your child’s daily activities, preferences, and her or his disposition can help guide the ABA program. Parental participation is necessary to effectively reinforce the child’s progress through the behavior change process. Parents also record and track ABA data in the home, school and community settings in which a child is involved. This information is vital in helping the clinician assess “the what and the why” of specific behaviors in a variety of contexts the clinical does not see outside the office. Without exception, active parental involvement in the ABA program helps a child make steady progress and ensures he or she experiences success.
Applied Behavior Strategies website describes ABA, practical applications and parent roles when ABA is used in treatment programs.
Applied Behavior Analysis: A Parents Guide extensive information from AutismSpeaks
Management of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Myers, Scott M., MD, (October 2007), American Academy of Pediatrics.
Applied Behavior Analysis, Autism, and Occupational Therapy: A Search for Understanding, Christie D. Welch; H. J. Polatajko, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, May 2016, Vol. 70.