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Autism and Essential Oils


Autism and Essential Oils

How autism affects sensory perception is a very complex issue. Working with autism can present particular problems for the carer. Some people describe autism as a disorder of the senses rather than a social dysfunction, where each sense operates in isolation, the brain unable to organize the stimuli in any meaningful way. The brain relies on information gathered by various sensory receptors such as touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight in order to make sense o 22522u2018w f our environment. The disruption caused by a sensory disorder as to how the information is organized in the brain can have a devastating effect on how a situation is perceived and understood.  Be aware of sensory shutdown, which occurs when an autistic individual is subjected to too much sensory stimuli and the brain cannot cope. Many people with autism will experience hypersensitivity to certain stimuli resulting in actual physical pain of sensory over-load. Plan your sessions carefully so as not to cause any undue anxiety.

Here are 6 different essential oils to use throughout the sessions, chosen for their safe use with autism, contrasting scents to stimulate the sense of smell, and for their therapeutic properties.  The use of stimulating oils during experimental sessions, calming oils for massage and relaxation sessions.  You could then observe any emotional effect the oils may have with an autistic client. The carer can massage with and without essential oils, and other different tactile sensations to explore their reactions.  The aim was to then channel their responses to work towards positive communication and social goals.

Conduct a risk assessment. While working with your client, position them to minimize risk.  

The essential oils selected to use are:

Lavender: for its calming effects, can help against aggressiveness and aid sleep.

Place 3 drops into 15mls of milk stir and place into bath just before bedtime.

Peppermint: a neuro-stimulating oil to help concentration.  Peppermint also had the advantage of being familiar to the group through taste and smell.

Dilute Peppermint (1.5%) essential oil in water, spray into the air, letting the droplets settle on their hands, arms and legs. 

Neroli: chosen for its non-irritant properties even on cracked or damaged skin, Neroli is sedating oil and is intended for massage.

Use 2-3 drops of Neroli oil in carrier oil such as sweet almond oil and massage the hands or feet for 3-4 minutes per hand / foot.

Once the client is used to the act of massage, you can introduce Sandalwood into the oil along side the Neroli

Eucalyptus: selected for having no known contraindications and its suitability for use with autism but particularly for blocked nasal passages due to its high menthol content as a different sensory experience for the client.

Roman chamomile: to impregnate wheat cushions and other sensory objects.  Selected for its safe use and calming effect. Also suggested for its use to prevent aggression.

In a small pillowcase that is filled with dried cracked wheat impregnated with Roman chamomile essential oil, heated in a microwave until warm.

Sandalwood: Chosen as a contrast to the other oils.  Safe and non-irritating.  It has calming and meditative properties and helps with obsessive and aggressive behavior.  Sandalwood also blends extremely well with Neroli and would give flexibility to create a new fragrance if required.

The main considerations are;

A common feature of autism is susceptibility to sensory overload.  As a result, autistic people may be over-sensitive to smells and are very wary of the invasion of their own personal space - their anxiety can be expressed as violent or disruptive behavior.  Massage or aromatherapy of any kind may be undesirable in these circumstances.

There has been previous concern that massage can exacerbate some cancers so it is important for the carer to understand their client and the type of cancer being dealt with.  Hospices are now using aromatherapy regularly to help relaxation, treat nausea, and provide emotional support through the therapeutic use of touch. 

The digestive system may be more sluggish than that of an able-bodied person - wait 2 hours after eating before a full body massage to prevent discomfort.

Because the elderly, inactive, or physically disabled may have a slower metabolism, double-dilute the quantity of essential oil used (Example: 1 drop pure essential oil to 4 ml carrier = 1% dilution).

Selecting oils
Only use oils which have been properly researched by a reputable source as many oils have their own specific contraindication for use with this client group under each individual oil.  Because many people with disabilities or special needs may be on powerful convention drug regimes, it is important to seek advice from their consultant before commencing treatment.

Inflamed joints Avoid the specific joint but massage on the joint above can help to improve circulation.

Massage upwards, (towards the heart) and towards lymph nodes to assist with lymphatic draining.

Damaged skin 

Avoid: Anise, Citronella, Clove (leaf, bud and stem), Lemon gum (Eucalyptus citriodora), Laurel, Lemongrass, May chang, Melissa, Oregano, Star anise, Thyme


Although not a cause of learning disabilities, epilepsy affects a greater proportion of this client group. There is a lot of incorrect information regarding the use of essential oils and epilepsy. Some publications recommend avoiding Aniseed, Dill, Rosemary, Fennel, Hyssop, Sage, and more recently, even Evening Primrose has been reported to be linked to seizures. However, in the sort of dilutions used for massage, epileptics are probably at more risk from the strong smell triggering a seizure than any adverse effect of the essential oil through absorption via the skin. 

As strong smells can trigger seizures, it would be wise to avoid strong overpowering fragrances.

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