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
For children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a sedentary lifestyle (including too much time on electronic devices), can worsen ASD symptoms and contribute to additional health problems such as obesity, motor impairment, and isolation. It’s been reported that as many as 40% of children age 10-17, who have autism are overweight or obese. Other studies indicate that among children age 2-19 who have autism, up to 36% are at risk for being overweight. The primary reason for these higher rates among ASD children is insufficient physical activity—the very activity that can enhance their quality of life.
Children on the Spectrum benefit from physical activity just as much, and perhaps more, than typically developing children.
In addition to boosting cardiovascular fitness and strength, children on the Spectrum who participate in regular physical activity and/or organized sports and fitness programs can make great improvement in their
Even beyond these physical benefits, participation in regular sports or fitness programs can enhance the child’s emotional wellbeing, boost self-esteem, and improve social skills. So what’s keeping kids on the Spectrum from being involved in an exercise or sports program?
Ironically, many of the benefits of physical activity tie into the reasons why caregivers are hesitant to enroll a Spectrum child in a fitness program or to allow them to play outdoors regularly. It’s true, there are challenges: Spectrum children can have limitations in motor skills. They may not be able to plan ahead, anticipate, and respond in ways that allow for success at a task. Children with autism can become overwhelmed by the increased auditory, visual, and sensory stimuli in a sports or fitness setting. However, if a program is planned and executed properly, all of these challenges can be managed and physical activity can be an appropriate intervention activity that helps kids on the Spectrum thrive.
First, speak with your child’s care team—psychologist, physical therapist, or physician—to assess your child’s level of readiness and to customize a program. Some children may begin with visits to a playground at a quiet time when they can be slowly introduced to appropriate equipment. Also, daily walks for increasing lengths of time and over different terrain (hills, wooded, city streets) can be a great beginning on the path to physical fitness. Others might join a small fitness class with children who have similar abilities/limits. For some children, the best first step may be learning at home by exploring different size balls from different types of sports, learning about the sports, and over time exploring the skills for a particular sport or activity of interest.
Swimming is a wonderful activity for children who do not have a sensory issue with water. Many towns and private aquatic facilities offer swim lessons for special needs children. Local yoga studios offer programs specifically designed for differing abilities. There is even a special certification for working with children who have autism and other special developmental needs. Another avenue to introduce fitness to your child is to bring her/him to observe other children involved in sports programs. Discuss how the children follow the coach’s instruction and work together toward a goal. Point out how the children are of different sizes and abilities. Your healthcare team can guide you to the right first steps or to organized programs that best suit your child’s needs.
Ask your child’s healthcare providers for referrals. Your child’s behavior specialist may even teach programs at their facility. Inquire with support groups, YMCA or JCC, and non-profit organizations that provide services for special needs children.
Once you’ve made a list of possible programs: Visit facilities and meet with instructors to discuss your child’s needs. Be sure to observe classes. Ask for a trial class or a trial week.
Instructors should be trained to understand and teach to the needs of children with ASD. They may have degrees in adaptive physical education or exercise science with a specialization in developmental disorders. The instructor should demonstrate understanding of the physical, emotional, and sensory needs of your child. By observing a class, you should be able to see how the instructor breaks down specific exercises/physical tasks, helps children set goals, and provides positive behavior support as well as appropriate correction.
By getting your child involved with a regular program of physical activity, you are giving them an opportunity to challenge themself within appropriate boundaries, enhance their physical and emotional well being, and to move beyond the perceptions of what children with ASD can or cannot do.
Autism Friendly Fitness Centers in Connecticut:
Autism Speaks List of Recreation Activities (provides a searchable database by state)
Obesity takes heavy toll on children with autism. SpectrumNews.org (10 Sept 2015). post by Jessica Wright. Accessed 8 May 2017: https://spectrumnews.org/news/obesity-takes-heavy-toll-on-children-with-autism/
AutismFitness.com (website and book by Eric Chessen). http://autismfitness.com (free e-book available)
Sports, Exercise, and the Benefits of PHsyical Acitivitty for Individuals with Autism. (9 Feb 2009) AutismSpeaks.org : https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/sports-exercise-and-benefits-physical-activity-individuals-autism
Autism and Swimming: children with Autism can Benefit from Physical Activity. SuperSwimmersFoundation.org: http://superswimmersfoundation.org/Autism-and-Swimming.htm
Physical Exercise and Autism. Edelson, Stephen. Autism Research Institute: https://www.autism.com/treating_exercise
Jones, R. A., Downing, K., Rinehart, N. J., Barnett, L. M., et. al., (2017). Physical activity, sedentary behavior and their correlates in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A systematic review. PLoS ONE, 12(2), e0172482. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172482
Dillon, S. R., Adams, D., Goudy, L., Bittner, M., & McNamara, S. (2016). Evaluating Exercise as Evidence-Based Practice for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in Public Health, 4, 290. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00290
Bandini, L. G., Gleason, J., Curtin, C., Lividini, K., Anderson, S. E., Cermak, S. A., Maslin, M., & Must, A. (2013). Comparison of physical activity between children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children. Autism, 17(1), 44–54. doi:10.1177/1362361312437416
Broder-Fingert, S., Brazauskas, K., Lindgren, K., Iannuzzi, D., & Van Cleave, J. (2014). Prevalence of overweight and obesity in a large clinical sample of children with autism. Academic Pediatrics, 14(4), 408–414. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2014.04.004