Reflexology for Autism A PILOT PROGRAM
Courtesy of NYSRA NEWS SUMMER 2017
Can Reflexology help someone with Autism? I believe it can. Can I prove it scientifically? No. But I can tell you about a 6-week pilot program I did with children between the ages of 3-5 who are on the Autism Spectrum. First let’s explore Reflexology further. The New York State Reflexology Association (nysraweb.org) defines Reflexology as follows: Reflexology is the physical act of applying pressure to the feet, hands, ears and face with specific thumb, finger, and hand techniques. It is based on a system of zones and reflex areas that mirror the image of the body on the feet, hands, ears and face with the premise that such work promotes a physiological change within the body.
It also reports that the National Institutes of Health (2008) recognizes Reflexology as “a non-invasive body-based discipline that is based on the principal that the human body is self-regulating and has an innate healing ability. Reflexology is a holistic discipline that can elicit physiological changes in the body that promote overall well-being.”
Reflexology helps the body to relax. Research has demonstrated reflexology can help one achieve deep relaxation which may promote normalization of heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and blood cortisol levels (fight or flight hormones). Deep relaxation has been shown to produce a calming effect on the body and mind.
Our bodies have an innate ability to heal which can only take place when we are in a relaxed state. It is only our own bodies that can heal themselves and the process is quite remarkable. Stress is a major contributor to disease. Some stress in our lives is necessary, the issue is that if we can’t deal with it in a positive manner or don’t know how to turn it off then our bodies go into overdrive. Stress is often referred to as the ‘invisible injury. This made me think that if reflexology could help the body to relax it might be a perfect tool to use on children who are stressed and have difficulty communicating their stress to those around them. I had heard anecdotally that some reflexologists were having success working with children on the Autism spectrum. In the process of pursuing this topic I was invited to conduct a pilot program with 6 students from two different classrooms.
I worked with each child within a private section of the classroom, providing a 10 to 25 minute Reflexology session, once a week over a 6-week period.
Three of the students (all boys) were in a larger class with other students who had sensory perception disorders, they had language skills, some social skills, but had difficulty controlling their emotions. At the drop of a hat they could escalate to a level that was very difficult for them to retreat from. All three boys showed signs of improvement as the sessions progressed. One student had eating issues in the form of severe allergies, sleeping issues, and behavior control issues just to name a few.
After about 3 sessions, his mother reported that he was sleeping better, willing to try more food textures and even showed his mother where to touch on her feet to help her to relax after he overheard her talking about being anxious over the start of a new job. This young boy took off his shoes and socks when he went to the dentist to work on his own feet to calm him from the ‘scary’ dental visit.
A second student showed signs of improvement in the speech class that immediately followed his reflexology session. The speech therapist said if she had not known that he received a reflexology session right before coming to her, she would have been wondering what was going on. This child also showed signs of being calmer in the classroom during the 6-week program. The third child in that group acted out less as he was better able to control his emotions.
The second group had a higher level of Autism disorders. This group of three consisted of 1 boy and 2 girls. When working with this group, the student’s one-on-one aide came along to help calm the student if that was needed. This group of students had difficulty with verbal communication, which led to frustration and acting out.
The first student (girl) communicated by making high pitched noises. She happily gave me her feet, but was unable to lay quietly without some sort of distraction for more than a few moments. As the sessions continued she was more amenable to the work and would be still for longer periods of time. At the end of the 4th session, she actually stood up and leaned into me as if to give a hug. I was also told that several months after the program stopped she found my picture in her basket, took the picture to the area where the reflexology sessions were conducted, put the picture on the wall and lay down as if she were waiting for the session to begin!
The second girl had an issue with grinding her teeth. She did this constantly throughout the day. When she finally settled down to receive the session I worked on the area of the big toe that represents the mouth. As I pressed on this area and she stopped grinding for the balance of the session. I showed her aide where to press so she could continue working on her between our sessions. In fact, the young girl would take her aide’s hand and bring it to her big toe to have her press on this area. This work diminished the amount of time she spent grinding her teeth, it did not stop the grinding completely but calmed her so that it was not a constant activity for her. This student also had fewer ‘melt downs’ during the period of receiving reflexology.
The third student in this group was a boy whose language improved and was calmer when receiving reflexology. During this pilot program the students received reflexology only once a week and both the teachers and the parents/caregivers noted improvements.
As I said, this was not a scientific study, but the results indicate that if these students receive reflexology on a regular basis in school or at home, behavioral changes might be more significant.