The marketing claims for essential oils would have you believe the right blend of oils could cure just about anything that ails you, or at the least soothe your symptoms. It’s not any different for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Claims range from certain oils having the ability to calm and soothe, or to focus a child’s mind or behavior. But experimenting with essential oils on your own can put a child in harms way: Some children may have an allergic reaction or even have a seizure when exposed to certain oils. It’s always best to use essential oils under the guidance of a certified clinical aromatherapist or naturopathic physician experienced with using essential oils with children who have ASD.
For those of you who want to know more, let’s focus on 3 important questions:
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 Europe, where standards for EO are much stricter than in the U.S., these components have to be listed on product labels as naturally occurring elements (versus added ingredients). 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, EO are used in both spa and medicinal treatments. In the U.S., essential oils came into vogue in spa treatments but have had exponential growth as over-the-counter ‘medicinal remedies’. It’s important to note that in the U.S., the FDA does not regulate EO for medicinal use the way it does prescription drugs but it does regulate the claims an EO manufacturing company can make about an oil.
How does an essential oil work?
The theory behind essential oils is based on 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 the areas of the brain strongly associated with emotion and memory—both positive and negative. The premise for essential oils is that their individual or combined aroma can trigger an emotional or physical response, such as becoming more relaxed, being better able to focus on a task, or feeling more energized. These effects on mood or mental state occur in two ways: either through inhaling their scent through a diffuser or applying an oil in diluted form diluted form directly to the skin, usually on pulse points or in bath water.
It is very important to understand that essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin without a carrier oil or lotion for dilution; nor should any essential oil ever 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, parenting blogs have exploded with testimonials about the use of certain EO for children with Autism. Some of these posts are nothing short of miraculous. These case reports are a start (just like Freud’s case studies of individual patients were a start). Every child is different; what seems beneficial for one child could be life-threatening for another. This is why research is so vitally important to the study of any potential treatment—no matter how benign it may seem, at first.
In the U.S. medical research database, PubMed, research on EO and Autism is scarce. In the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Databaes, there are a few studies that address very specific questions, which is how you have to search for information if you want to accurately answer your question. For example, “essential oils (or aromatherapy) to improve sleep with children with Autism.” Or “Does lavender essential oil help calm children with autism so they can focus on performing a task?” A high quality study will use a control (or comparison group); will have standardized definitions of the variables being observed; uses standardized measurement tools or criteria (such as a validated questionnaire or measure of heart rate and blood pressure); and aims to manage outside factors that could influence results. For example, if a lavender EO is used in a child’s bath, you would not also want to be playing calming classical music at the same time and then measure how easily a child falls asleep. The presence of the calming music interferes with the observation of the essential oil treatment.
Study Evaluating Essential Oil Effects on Sleep Patterns in Children with Autism
In the past year, 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. For children who are able to, they 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 the EO Mixture B for another 3 months. Dozens of children will be tested over a two-year period. If you’d like to get involved, contact the study director through this link.
The short answer to the question about whether or not EO have benefit for children with Autism is “maybe.” It depends on the child, the oil or oils being used (and the quality of those oils), and it depends upon the reason for use. The more questions we ask, and the more care we take in investigating answers, the more likely we are to find safe, effective natural remedies to complement treatment for children with Autism.
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.