In recent years many parents of children with autism have become interested in the use of essential oils as a natural way to manage symptoms. In this guide we discuss everything you need to know.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are distilled from the leaves, stems, flowers, bark, roots, and/or other parts of a plant. The term is a contraction of the original word ‘quintessential oil,’ which originated from the Aristotelian idea that matter is composed of four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. The fifth element, quintessence, is the spirit or life force.
The chemical composition and aroma of essential oils are said to provide many psychological, emotional, and physical therapeutic benefits for people. These benefits can be gained by either inhaling the scent or by applying diluted versions to the skin, as directed.
Essential oils are obtained from plants through distillation, usually by using steam. Manufacturers also use the expression solvent extraction, absolute oil extraction, resin tapping, and cold pressing. Despite the use of the word ‘oil,’ most essential oils don’t have an oily feeling. They are usually clear, too, though patchouli, orange, and lemongrass essential oils can be amber or yellow.
Some people may believe essential oils are the same as perfume or fragrance oils, but they are not. Essential oils are derived from actual plants and contain the true essence of the plant. Fragrance oils are different because they contain artificial ingredients and substances. They do not have the therapeutic benefits essential oils can provide.
Today, essential oils can be diluted and applied to the skin and used in aromatherapy, which is the act of inhaling the aroma from plant-based essences for holistic wellness. While essential oils for autism is considered an alternative form of treatment by mainstream medicine, the practice has caught the attention of parents who have children on the spectrum because of its potential for therapeutic benefits.
There is significant evidence through testimonials that indicate that essential oils can reduce challenging behaviors in children with autism or ADHD. These include:
- Sensory overload
- Sleep issues
What are the benefits of essential oils?
In general, essential oils have a multitude of benefits, depending on their type. Holistically, essential oils can reduce or treat a variety of health challenges, including:
- Support healthy body functions and help boost the immune system
- Relieve discomfort and sore muscles after exercising
- Soothe the digestive system. Peppermint, for example, is known to support the healthy function of your stomach and digestive organs
- Enhance a massage
- Boost your ability to focus and concentrate
- Help you relax and reduce your stress levels
- Promote wellness
- Provide safer and non-toxic ways to clean and purify both the home and workspaces
- Help you achieve healthier skin and great-looking hair
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How can kids with ASD and ADHD benefit from essential oils?
You can find hundreds of online blogs and articles brimming with testimonials on the use of essential oils to help people diagnosed with autism and/or ADHD. Relaxing essential oil blends for autism have been effective in helping children manage certain symptoms, such as hyperactivity, stress, sensory overload, and anger. Essential oils may also be used to help kids who have a hard time transitioning throughout the day or at bedtime when going to sleep, which is a common concern among kids on the autism spectrum.
As previously mentioned, some essential oils can be applied directly to the skin. In the case of children with autism, the oils should be applied to the soles of the feet, the neck, the top of the head, the chest, the forehead, the abdomen, the arms, and the legs. According to parents who have found success with essential oils, it works right away, as oils can enter the bloodstream within 30 seconds. Within 30 minutes, the oils can circulate through the entire body. It’s important to note some oils need to be diluted with carrier oils for safety, which will be explained later in this article.
To ensure efficiency, it is recommended that essential oils are used two to three times a day at the start. Then, the frequency should be gradually reduced to once a day. Always confirm use with a medical professional.
Is there supportive research on essential oils for autism?
What does the research community say about essential oils? While these oils have been used therapeutically for hundreds of years, there is limited published research to support their use. Clinical studies are currently underway around the world to define the healing properties of various oils.
Researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center aim to answer this question. Dr. Jill Hollway, PhD, MA, is conducting a two-year study to investigate whether essential oils can help people with autism. Certain oils are soothing on their own, but Dr. Hollway is taking it a step further. She hopes to determine whether a combination of essential oils can improve relaxation and sleep. If you want to try essential oils on your child, you must educate yourself to prevent harm.
Aromatherapy for autism—the essential oil diffuser
In addition to applying essential oils to the skin, parents can use a diffuser to reap the many benefits of the oils. This aromatherapy diffuser, an air vaporizer, allows you to disperse your essential oil of choice by adding it to distilled water.
Not only does the essential oil help children relax and potentially sleep, but the diffuser also helps purify rooms and remove bacteria and viruses from the air. It can create a better living environment for the entire family. You can use it at the office to help you stay focused and reduce stress levels as well.
A word of caution, though—always make sure to store essential oils in glass containers. According to experts, they can be contaminated with toxins and other harmful substances if left in a plastic container or diffuser.
Top recommended essential oils for autism and ADHD
Also known as olibanum, frankincense oil is taken from the resin of the Boswellia Carteri, or Boswellia Sacra tree, that grows in Somalia. It has anti-bacterial, anti-tumor, and anti-viral properties that can aid in recovery from respiratory infections, indigestion, arthritis, and joint pain. Research has shown it can help boost the immune system. For children with autism or ADHD, frankincense oil benefits include helping them stay focused. It is known to reduce stress reactions and negative emotions.
Vetiver oil is obtained through the steam distillation of the roots of the vetiver plant (Chrysopogon zizanioides), a perennial grass native to India. It has antiseptic and antispasmodic properties that aid in the healing of wounds and scars and provide inflammation relief.
In 2001, a study conducted by Dr. Terry Friedmann revealed vetiver essential oil might be beneficial in treating ADHD, one of the most frequently diagnosed disorders in young children and teenagers. The oil’s relaxing and calming properties are said to help children combat symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, being distracted, and impatience.
Known for its woodsy and sweet smell, sandalwood oil is derived from the mature roots of the sandalwood tree through steam distillation. The more mature the tree is, the more potent the extracted essential oil would be. One of the major sandalwood oil benefits is it helps mental clarity, especially when used with a diffuser. It has a relaxing and calming effect that can be effective for children with autism spectrum disorders. Apart from that, sandalwood has anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, and anti-viral properties.
Like sandalwood and vetiver essential oils, cedarwood oil is extracted by steam-distilling pieces of the cedar wood tree. Major components of this essential oil include alpha-cedrene, beta-cedrene, cedrol, widdrol, and thujopsene.
It can be used for treating eczema, hair loss, dry scalp, and the inflammation of the joints and tissues. Cedarwood essential oil can also help children with autism and ADHD. It has calming and relaxing properties; its scent promotes the release of serotonin, which is then converted into melatonin in the brain.
Throughout the centuries, lavender oil has been used by different civilizations for its medicinal properties. For instance, the Romans used it for bathing and cooking. Perhaps the most famous usage of all is when Mary Magdalene used it to anoint Jesus.
There are many lavender oil benefits. For starters, it has antioxidants that protect your body from illnesses. It helps heal burns and wounds, alleviates headaches, and may be useful in the treatment of diabetes. It has a calming effect on children on the autism spectrum and can help improve sleep quality, as well as reduce anxiety and emotional stress.
Mandarin essential oil has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Known to be the sweetest and most calming of all citrus essential oils, it is very mild and contains many healing properties.
Mandarin oil can treat acne, reduce insomnia, and manage gut issues like leaky gut syndrome. Thanks to its anti-microbial and anti-tumor properties, it may even help with the treatment of certain types of cancer. It is particularly useful for children because many kids are fond of its citrusy scent. It can help reduce anxiety levels.
Peppermint is perhaps one of the most versatile of all essential oils in the world. It is perfect for children with autism and ADHD because it gives a cooling sensation and has a calming effect on the body. It is known to help improve mental focus.
Peppermint essential oil has anti-microbial properties that help freshen bad breath and heal digestive issues. It can also help relieve headaches, clear the respiratory tract, and soothe tight and tired muscles.
Ylang Ylang Oil
Ylang ylang essential oil is from the flower petals of the large ylang-ylang tree (Cananga odorata), which is often found in tropical countries. This essential oil is quite popular for its sweet, floral scent. In fact, it is one of the key ingredients of Chanel No. 5.
Ylang ylang oil has effective sedative, antiseptic, anti-spasmodic, and anti-depressant properties. It has a positive effect on human emotions and can increase the blood flow to certain parts of the body. It can relieve inflammation and help the function of cardiovascular and digestive systems.
Bergamot essential oil is obtained from the peel of the fruit of the bergamot plant through cold compression. It is often used to reduce pain caused by headaches and muscle tension. It has anti-bacterial properties that can help heal wounds and minimize marks on the skin. Known as an excellent mood enhancer, bergamot can be an exceptional essential oil for autism. It helps create a feeling of joy, freshness, and energy by improving the circulation of blood. Bergamot oil also works as a relaxant as it has a calming effect and can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
For nearly 5,000 years, chamomile has been used to treat various ailments. Whether in tea or oil form, this versatile medicinal herb is rich in disease-fighting antioxidants such as terpenoids and flavonoids. Chamomile essential oil is one of the best when it comes to fighting stress and anxiety.
According to a study published on Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and Pharmacognosy Review, inhaling chamomile promotes relaxation. Chamomile oil has potent anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing abilities and can help relieve congestion, strengthen the heart, improve digestion, and even fight cancer.
Essential oils FAQs
At this time, there isn’t a specific recommendation of an essential oil for autism speech or nonverbal children with autism specifically, however, some parents have reported positive results with a combination of oils that reduce anxiety and produce calm.
Parents claim that vetiver, frankincense, and ylang-ylang are the most effective oils in managing emotional outbursts and aggression in children with autism.
While essential oils may not completely stop a child’s stimming, oils with calming effects like chamomile, lavender, and peppermint might help reduce the need for stimming.
Chamomile, mandarin, bergamot, sandalwood, and lavender all have relaxing and sedative properties to help aid sleep.
Research about essential oils and their effects on autism are inconclusive. A study started by Dr. Jill Hollway to investigate the effects of essential oils on children with autism is ongoing, and results are yet to be published.
The truth about autism and essential oils for children with autism and ADHD
First, it’s imperative to note essential oils are not a cure for autism or any other medical condition. Their use does not improve cognitive skills, communication skills, or social skills.
Scientific research on autism and essential oils is limited and not conclusive at this time. Some essential oils can have negative side effects if used or applied incorrectly.
Note that not all essential oils can be used for children. Always consult with your child’s doctor about the safe use of essential oils before using them on your child, especially if he/she has a medical condition or is taking medication.
The dangers of essential oils if misused
It’s important to point out essential oils can be toxic if misused. Never eat or drink essential oils. According to the University of Minnesota Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing website, extra caution should be taken when selecting essential oils for babies and young children.
Peppermint, for example, should not be used with children under six years old because menthol, a major chemical in peppermint oil, has caused serious complications including respiratory issues.
Not all oils are considered safe for people with epilepsy or other coexisting conditions. Essential oils can also be damaging to the skin, liver, and other organs if misused. When first trying an essential oil, always start with a patch test and watch for an allergic reaction. And keep in mind some oils are harmful to family pets, so contact your veterinarian to confirm safety before diffusing.
Safety tips for using essential oils with children
Even after discussing essential oils with your child’s doctor, there are basic precautions you still need to take when using essential oils.
- When you use essential oils for autism spectrum disorders you must be very careful. The oils are potent. Always use as little as needed.
- When using essential oils topically, dilute them with a safe carrier oil. Carrier oils can be fractionated coconut oil or grapeseed oil. It helps prevent the skin from getting burned when it comes into contact with certain types of essential oils.
- Essential oils known for being ‘hot’ and therefore require dilution are birch, cassia, cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, ginger, lemongrass, oregano, peppermint, thyme, and wintergreen. Before using any of these oils, it’s recommended you test them first by applying them on the wrist or the bottom of the feet. Make sure to keep them away from the eyes.
- You should consult a qualified aromatherapist or doctor before applying any type of essential oil on the skin, especially on children. Apart from applying essential oils topically, you can inhale it using a diffuser. Some research has shown aromatic use can be more effective and potentially safer.
- When not in use, essential oils should be kept in a glass bottle with a closed lid and away from extreme temperatures, so they last longer.
Ways to apply essential oils for autism
The application of essential oils for autistic children will depend on each child. Although most oils can be rubbed onto the skin, such as the back of the neck, some children’s skin might be sensitive or get an allergic reaction. In this case, using an essential oil diffuser might work better.
It is important to note that children’s skin is more sensitive than adults, so diluting the oil before applying it to the skin is a great idea. Diluting oils involves adding a carrier oil like coconut oil, grapeseed oil, or avocado oil to the essential oil. You can refer to a dilution chart to ensure you are using the right amount of oils.
What should you consider when buying essential oils for your child with autism?
Quality is a key consideration when determining the best essential oils for autism. If the oils are of low quality, you may not be able to get optimum results. Manufacturers may stamp the word “pure” on their labels, but it doesn’t ensure quality. And since essential oils are not regulated, some manufacturers may say they are ‘organic’ when they are not.
Some manufacturers use chemicals when extracting the essential oil from plants, thus making the oils neither pure nor organic. That’s why you must take a closer look at how it is extracted. This will help you determine if the manufacturers’ claims are true. Also, you should avoid anything that says ‘fragrance’ or ‘perfume.’
Essential oils considered 100 percent pure and therapeutic grade are those extracted from plants, flowers, trees, roots, and seeds using low, slow steam distillation (for non-citrus essential oils) or cold-pressed (for citrus oils). Depending on the product and company, pure essential oil extracts can be 50 to 200 times more concentrated than their source. Single oils can be blended to create another type of essential oil or to enhance their effects. But they should only be blended to ensure they are effective, safer, and easier to use.
Purity is one of the most important characteristics of essential oils. Among the things that can affect purity are poor production processes and the development of synthetic essential oil variations. If you want to get the best results possible, opt for Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade (CPTG) essential oils. These oils, like doTerra essential oils for ADHD and Young Living Essential Oils, undergo testing to ensure purity and quality.
Here are some more facts to consider when choosing essential oils:
- Always look for quality, organic oils to ensure that it does not contain harmful ingredients that might have adverse effects on your child.
- Even though essential oils come from plants, some of them may contain materials that are toxic or irritating. If in doubt, check the US Food & Drug Administration Poisonous Plants Database.
- Always buy essential oils in dark glass bottles as these prevent light from entering which can spoil the oil. Some oils can melt in plastic bottles, so it’s best to avoid these.
- Buy essential oils with its common name along with its Latin name to ensure you are getting the exact type of oil.
How is essential oil quality testing done?
CPTG quality testing is done to ensure essential oils are made using proper methods of growing, harvesting, and distilling their plant source. It’s done through a series of processes that include:
- Validation of Quality
Each essential oil is reviewed for chemical composition after plant selection, harvesting, and distillation. It is then tested two more times to confirm it remained free of contaminants and unexpected alterations during production.
- Organoleptic Testing
This testing involves the use of the human senses to determine the quality and acceptability of the product.
- Microbial Testing
Under microbial testing, a batch of essential oils is analyzed and tested for the presence of micro-organisms like fungi, bacteria, viruses, and mold that can be detrimental to your health. Samples are taken before and after the essential oils are packed to ensure they haven’t been contaminated during the packaging process.
- Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry Analysis (GC/MS)
In this process, essential oils are vaporized and passed through a long column to separate them into individual components. This is to determine the exact chemical composition of a particular essential oil.
- Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR)
FTIR is designed to ensure each batch of essential oil is potent and consistent. As part of this test, structural components of essential oil compounds are analyzed by passing them through infrared light.
- Heavy-Metal Testing
Heavy-metal testing determines the heavy metal content in the essential oil. Ideally, pure essential oils do not contain heavy metals when distilled.
Essential oils for autism testimonials
Parents have reported improved sleep and overall behavior when using essential oils for their children. In a 2015 article, The Epoch Times interviewed Shannon Coconis, mother to 12-year-old Sam, who was diagnosed with autism. She read about essential oils and autism in an online forum and decided to try it on her son.
Coconis said she didn’t notice any difference for the first month until she ran out and noticed his son’s behavior became challenging. “All of a sudden he started going crazy. The only thing I could figure was that he didn’t have his oils. We got back to the oils and his behavior improved,” Coconis said.
Some children with autism have difficulty sleeping or staying asleep. Traditional treatment might involve melatonin supplements. However, some parents use essential oils for autism sleep because it gives better results. Chamomile oil is the popular oil of choice for improving sleep, even for people who are not on the spectrum.
A 2005 study conducted by Professor Steve Solomons from the University of Birmingham’s special education center investigated if aromatherapy, which used essential oils, increased shared attention in four children with autism. The study returned positive results, with all children displaying an improvement in shared attention.
Stay-at-home mom and blogger Dyan Robson wrote about using essential oils to help lessen symptoms of autism in her child. She uses her favorite vetiver oil out of all other essential oils for autism aggression and hysteria.
Erika of Living Well Mom, shared her own blend of essential oils for autism recipe—a combination of frankincense, blood orange, and coconut oil—that helps her child with autism calm down when having a tantrum or meltdown.
Are essential oils right for my family?
Essential oils that contain chemicals or artificial ingredients may not be as potent and effective as pure and organic essential oils. They may cause more problems than they solve, so be vigilant and stay informed.
The health benefits of essential oils are many. But as with anything that can affect your health and well-being, educate yourself. Research and seek expert advice to avoid allergies and other harmful side effects. Keep in mind that while quality testing is done by several companies, it is not standardized.
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