Tuesday, 02 January 2018 15:18

The Potential Benefits of Essential Oils for Children with Autism

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.


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.

Alliance of International Aromatherapists

Find a Naturopathic Doctor

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 

Published in Treatment
Tuesday, 11 July 2017 05:19

Helpful Tips & Perspectives for Families with a Child Recently Diagnosed with Autism or ADHD

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.

  1. The diagnosis does not define your child. Your child is the sum of more than his or her behavior. Your child is more than the diagnosis and it is up to all those who love a special needs child to separate who the child is from the challenging behaviors he or she displays. As your family learns what triggers bring on your child symptoms, you will be able to have more moments that emphasize your child’s amazing qualities. Your child may be funny, creative, compassionate, skilled with their hands. These are the qualities that define a person, not the diagnoses.
  2. You must take care of yourself. Parenting a typically developing child is tough as it is; raising a child with special needs can be even more exhausting. You can experience guilt, doubt, frustration, and feel overly-committed to your child’s needs. The best way to manage your emotions is to make time each day to take care of your emotional and physical health. This can include exercise, journaling, art, yoga, going to a support group, eating healthfully, getting quality sleep, and maintaining open lines of communication with family and the healthcare team. 
  3. Slow Down. Everything about the world we live in is immediate. We don’t even realize the speed of our own thoughts, speech, and emotions. We mindlessly multitask ourselves into exhaustion. When caring for a child on the spectrum,  you need to slow way down. Once you start to pay attention to the pace at which you are doing things, you will become more mindful of how the “rush” affects you and your child. Out of that awareness, you can make changes that will benefit both of you.
  4. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to caring for a special needs child. As you attend support groups, read, and observe other families who have a special needs child, you will hear about many types of therapies that ‘work.’ This illustrates the unique needs of different children even though they may have the same diagnosis. Always work with your child’s healthcare team to discover and implement the treatment approaches that will best suit your child and your family.
  5. Learn how to advocate for your child. You will not be able to escape the stereotypes that exist about Autism or attention deficit disorders. By educating yourself and coming to know and appreciate your child’s strengths and weaknesses, you will be in a position to advocate for your child. Many support groups offer workshops that can help you develop confidence and the skills necessary to engage with counselors, teachers, and even public figures on behalf of your child. 
  6. Look for the positive, the up-lifiting, and the inspiring in every day. When you focus on what is going well, you can see the great potential that exists within your child and you can help them express that potential. When they sense your positive expectations of them, your child will feel empowered to bring out their very best. Also, focusing on the positive can help you better navigate challenges and get through the days when everything is going according to Murphy’s Law.
  7. Observe and embrace what motivates your child. Rather than imparting what you think your child should be interested in, identify what interests her and explore the topic from different angles. For example, if your child is interested in animals, you can explore different groups of animals through books, video, apps, and a trip to the pet store or the zoo. Narrow that broad interest to specific types of animals that captivate your child and help them create projects that will teach them in more in depth ways. Your keen observations and intuition about your child is the best guide for helping them unearth their talents and abilities.
  8. Communicate on their level, and mindfully. It’s important with all children, but even more so for a child with ADHD or Autism that you make eye contact when you communicate with them. This ensures that you are both paying attention to one another. And, because many kids on the spectrum tend to be visually and feeling-oriented, getting “on their level” to communicate conveys a sense of safety and structure to them. Also, be mindful of your tone and body language. Your child is likely to be sensitive to even subtle changes in your emotional tone and gestures. By making changes in how you communicate, you can help your child thrive in how they communicate.
  9. Minimize the complexity of how you communicate. Simple instruction may allow your child to better follow directions. Focus your instructions on immediate tasks, delivered in an even tone (not hastily), and use simple phrases. Rather than, “After you eat, brush teeth, brush your hair and get your shoes on” you will need to go step-by-step:  “Eat breakfast, when you’re done let me know.” When that task is done, “Please brush teeth now.” And, so on. 
  10. Show your child love and acceptance every day. When you are with your child, speak and act intentionally and from the heart. This conveys acceptance and love that your child will sense. 

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. 


Advice of Parents of Newly Diagnosed Children with Autism (2014) Psychology Today

Advice for Parents of Young Autistic Children (2012, Part 1 & 2) Autism Research Institute

Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive 

100 Day Kit for Families of Children Newly Diagnosed with Autism

Your ADHD Child:  Easy Parenting Techniques

My Child was just Diagnosed with ADHD. Now What?

Published in Family
Tuesday, 31 January 2017 13:18

Parent’s Quick Guide to Applied Behavior Analysis

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.

What is ABA?

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

  • increases desirable behaviors using positive reinforcement for performing a specific behavior (e.g., teeth-brushing, eating with utensils, completing homework)
  • teaches new skills using systematic instruction and reinforcement strategies to help establish functional life skills, communication skills, or social skills
  • teaches self control and self-monitoring strategies so a person can be productive at home, and/or in academic, work and social settings
  • generalizes a behavior or skill from one situation to another (e.g., not making an outburst at home as well as at school or while at a restaurant).
  • adjusts situations that may trigger unacceptable behaviors to occur (e.g., removing toys during homework time)
  • reduces interfering behaviors such as self-injury (hitting one’s head on the wall out of frustration), destroying property, or other physical/ emotional outbursts.

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 physical environment in which the behavior occurs
  • any triggers within the physical environment that contribute to the frequency or intensity of the behavior

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.


“Getting to Know ABA”  

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

ABA Resources from Center for Autism and Related Disorders

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.

Published in Programs

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