The importance of desensitization massages in autism

When my first grandson was born it was a time of rejoicement. My daughter took good care of herself and had stressed all sorts of precautions. She exercised, took her vitamins, kept a good diet, and never smoked or drank alcohol. Considering her naturalistic approach to pregnancy, and the quality of health services available to her, we were all expecting a very healthy baby.

I saw my grandson, Bertrand, a few days after he was born. What I remember most about him was his very serious demeanor, especially for a baby. He expressed a constant look of concern. It was like something was bothering him. He further communicated his apparent displeasure by constant crying. If you picked him up or embraced him, in an attempt to console him, it would make his tantrums worse. As a baby, he would even push you away! His crying spells would go on forever and least to say, my daughter got very little sleep at night.

I think there were many warning signs that something was wrong with Bertrand. As a baby we were never able to get him to engage with his surrounding and he never seemed to answer when his name was called. In time, he developed hand mannerisms and started slapping objects repetitively. Despite the abnormal behaviors, his pediatrician never saw anything wrong in him. It was all attributed to colic and overly worried parents.

When Bertrand’s diagnosis was confirmed (by then he also had relentless seizures) one of the therapists suggested giving him “desensitization massages”. Bertrand did not like being touched, especially on the face, and we had to avoid this area initially. We started by massaging his legs, then the torso and finally the arms. After a couple of years we were able to touch him on the cheeks without discomfort. I think the success we encountered should be partially attributed to the fact that a significant portion of the massages transpired while we were on a rocking chair.

Rocking Chair
The importance of using a rocking chair as part of the therapeutic efforts in autism can’t be underestimated.

I have often wondered what would have happened to Bertrand if we had not pursued the massage therapy. If so, he would have seldom experienced human touch. Animal studies have shown that lack of touch during development is usually associated with more timidity and an increased startle response. Some experiments have even shown that pups reared in isolation show abnormal sensory responses (e.g., pain). Opposite behaviors are seen in handled animals. Handling cage animals is associated with smaller adrenal glands, increased ability to survive surgical procedures, better learning, and increased exploratory behaviors.

In primates Harry Harlow did some of the most acclaimed research. Monkeys raised in isolation exhibit repetitive behaviors like rocking and sometimes bang their head against the wall. They may bite themselves and sometimes pull their fur out. If you keep the monkeys for prolonged periods of time in this isolated state, the may never recover from the abnormal behaviors.

In humans, observation from different orphanages, has shown that lack of touch leads to developmental delays, fearfulness of strangers (timidity), and may engender a variety of mental disorders. Not surprinsly, oxytocin (the so-called love hormone), which is released when we hug or receive a massage, seems to reduce repetitive behaviors in autistic individuals.

I have to wonder how many of the symptoms used in screening tests are core to the pathology and how many are secondary to the rearing environment. I do not have an answer. However, I would like to stress the advantage of desensitization massage in autism. This intervention is well-known in physical therapy where it is often applied to desensitize from the pain of surgical scars, and some claim benefits in cases of arthritis. Although the desensitization massage is usually manual (gentling rubbing an area with your hands) initial success may be pursued with further desensitization to different types of fabric. Baby steps.

4 responses to “The importance of desensitization massages in autism

    • Sorry to post your comment so late. I am just coming back from China and somewhat dazed from jet lag. However, thank you for sharing your experience (which is very similar to what we experienced with my grandson).

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  1. Gracias por “resucitar” los estudios de Harlow y similares. Y hablarnos de tu nieto.
    Mi hijo (3º) gran prematuro de seis meses, sufrió un bombardeo de sensaciones en los cuatro meses que siguieron, intubaciones y sondas para ventilación y nutrición, lineas de goteo, inyecciones, transfusiones y operaciones varias, ruidos y luces extraños, hasta veinte episodios de resucitación … Luego, oxigeno en casa durante ocho meses, vómitos en proyectil, y epilepsia febril, no controlaba, la fiebre que se disparaba en minutos. Bien hacia los dos años y durante unos meses, su estado físico mejora, parece que empieza a marchar con su hermano (4º y último), nacido un año más tarde, nos mira bien y rie con él (tenemos fotos, no es la imaginación) empieza a andar y a a decir las primeras palabras. Está empezando a ser “castigado” en el ojo derecho (!como nos arrepentimos!!) por la retinopatía izquierda. Entre los dos años y medio y tres años pierde las pocas palabras que tenía, nos rechaza, no se deja tocar, se empieza a dar bofetaditas, a girar ruedas de cochecito indefinidamente, obsesionado con el lavaplatos, sus cosquillas hacen difícil el vestirle.
    Hoy a los 22 años tiene un autismo severo y no podemos tocarle aunque es “autosuficiente” en cosas como la higiene, alimentación (ha de comer solo) etc. En casa prefiere estar desnudo como si le molestara la ropa que a veces se ha quitado rasgándola. Desde los siete años no ha tenido epilepsia y nunca está enfermo, come como una lima, de todo pero nunca dulces, que rechaza y está delgado y fuerte. Su mundo es la música (a veces rocking), pasar ratos en el baño con abluciones y “experimentos hidraulicos” (lo que crea problemas y alguna inundación) andar y romper ingentes cantidades de papel.

    A veces me pregunto si tanto o más como la prematuridad y su tratamiento (oxígeno a altas presiones, dexametasona, etc etc) no fue el bombardeo sensorial, penoso y artificial lo que le lesionó.

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    • Creo que ofreces observaciones ascertadas. Quizas deberiamos de anadir que la prematurez de por si ofrece un riesgo para el autismo. Muchos de estos ninos tienen defectos (hemoragias) en la zona germinal que bordea los ventriculos del cerebro. Muchas lesiones de esta zona ocasionadas por farmacos y viruses dan lugar a compartamientos de tipo autistas.

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