Free research study can benefit autistic families

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - After a year of massage therapy, d'Artagnan Schweitzer has moved from a special needs preschool to a mainstream kindergarten classroom in West Linn.At 4 years of age, d’Artagnan Schweitzer was mostly nonverbal. He wasn’t potty trained, he didn’t like making eye contact and he didn’t like to be touched.

Tan, as he is known, is on the autism spectrum.

“He’s always been fairly high functioning on the spectrum of autism,” Tan’s mother, Jennifer Whitten, said. “He also has ADHD.”

About a year ago, Whitten heard of a research study that offered families affected by autism a chance to learn a daily massage routine. Preliminary research had shown massage to reverse sensory difficulties and improve behavior among autistic children.

“We heard about it through my son’s preschool, which is a special needs setting,” Whitten said. “It was just a study, and it was free. We said, if it can’t hurt him, we’re willing to try it.”

The research study is being conducted by Western Oregon University researcher Dr. Louisa Silva.

“Often children with autism have abnormal responses to touch, such that they avoid touch on many areas of the body,” Silva said. “Although parental touch is the most effective way to calm children, often parents (of) children with autism will avoid using touch as a parenting tool because their child doesn’t respond normally to it.”

The primary goal was to accustom the children to being touched. Secondary goals included helping to calm them, encouraging them to focus and to improve behavior overall.

Once enrolled in the study, Whitten and Tan went to a training session and a couple of meetings. The researchers sent someone to the family’s home to teach massage techniques.

“We did it every night and within the first couple of weeks, we really started to see some really amazing transformations,” Whitten said.

Tan was averse to touch — he didn’t even like holding hands. The massage, Whitten found, was a great way to be able to touch him in ways that he enjoyed.

The improvements, while not immediate, have been dramatic.

“We saw changes in his verbal skills. He was talking more. His teacher saw changes,” Whitten said. “Within nine months of the first massage, he was completely potty trained. We were thrilled.”

A year later, Tan is in a mainstream kindergarten class at Bolton Primary School. He has cut his medication levels. And at home, he sometimes asks for a massage.

“He’ll show us where he wants it,” Whitten said. “He definitely knows what he needs and what feels right. He’ll tell me really specifically if he wants his fingers squeezed or if he wants us to pat his chest. He gets very, very specific. He knows that there’s a change when we do it.”

Whitten emphasizes that Tan still is on the autism spectrum. Massage has not “cured” him.

“We would hate to send that message to other parents,” she said. “It wasn’t a cure, but it was a support. The worst thing that could happen was nothing. It wasn’t going to cause him any harm.”

The grant-funded study is open to parents with autistic children under 6 who are living in Clackamas, Multnomah, Washington, Yamhill, Polk, Marion, Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties. Enrolled families receive treatments, assessment and training, valued at more than $1,500. There is no cost to participate.

The deadline for enrolling is April 16. Learn more about the study or enroll online at Contact Kris Gabrielsen at 503-474-0218 for more information.

By Kate Hoots
Education reporter
503-636-1281, ext. 112
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