Some of us enjoy the occasional trip to the spa; not only is it a form of self-care but it also offers us the opportunity to relieve tension. Treatments offered can range from hot stones, to trigger point massages including vibration massages. It’s therefore hardly surprising that vibration therapy for autism is believed to soothe and support the sensory system for many children on the spectrum.
Let’s take a closer look at what vibration therapy is and how it can be used as an alternative form of support for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
What type of sensory input is vibration?
Vibrations are recognized through the touch and hearing sensory systems. The brain analyzes sensory information before sending a motor signal to the muscles to respond. The transmission of information allows us to detect sensory impulses from our surroundings or bodies, analyze them, and then respond motorically. Therefore, vibration therapy targets the somatosensory system.
Vibration therapy has been reported to be effective for individuals with nerve damage, autism, or sensory dysfunction, in a variety of ways.
How does vibration therapy work?
Vibrations through the body can be artificially produced through vibration therapy and their duration can be modified to potentially have favorable health advantages, which may include physiological arousal regulation comparable to that seen during intense exercise.
Some studies show that vibration therapy is effective in reducing repetitive hand tremors in individuals with Parkinson’s disease, as well as increasing bone density and physical mobility in immobilized children.
There are different types of vibration, namely, excitatory vibration and vibration to active muscles. Let’s look at each briefly:
- Excitatory vibration: These vibrations are specific for children with low arousal to give them sensory input to keep them alert. This is more effective when paired with exercises that provide vestibular input
- Vibration to activate muscles: Some children have low muscle tone and the vibration reportedly helps to turn the muscles on (targeting the proprioceptive system), and can potentially improve motor skills
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As for the benefits of vibration therapy for autism, a case report by Bressel, Gibbons, and Samaha (2011) found that whole-body vibration helped with treating some stereotypies in children aged four to six. The intensity of vibration differed for each child and the study found that, when given the wrong frequency, some children didn’t see a change in stereotypy.
Stereotypy (also known as stimming) is often common in children with autism. Stereotypies are repetitive movements that include behaviors such as body rocking, finger tapping, head-nodding, repetitive vocalization, finger-tapping, arm, and hand flapping, waving, or pacing.
Some researchers argue that stereotypic behavior can interfere with psychological development, and some therapies that reduce stereotypy help promote optimal developmental progress. These therapies include pharmaceutical approaches, behavioral approaches, and sensory integration approaches such as vibration therapy. However, early intensive behavioral intervention is usually what’s recommended for autistic individuals.
Relaxation for sensory seekers
Vibration therapy is reported to be beneficial for children with sensory processing challenges.
A benefit of vibration therapy is that it can be whole body or localized. Whole body vibration therapy takes place in a closed setting where the client sits or stands on a vibrational platform and the therapist directs how the person should be positioned. In contrast, handheld vibration therapy can be implemented at home and can be used more specifically depending on the needs of the person or child.
Vibration tools such as a hand-held or fixed massager may deliver strong vibratory sensations. This can help autistic children with low arousal by providing somatosensory stimuli and can be used on the child’s back, arms, and legs. It can also help children with hypersensitivity when adjusted accordingly.
Vibration therapy can be a great way to find relaxation, especially for autistic children who are sensory seekers. Many sensory seekers require proprioceptive input, i.e. heavy work input. Physical exercises that provide this input include pushing, pulling, hanging, weightlifting, etc. but, if you’re seeking an alternative that doesn’t involve physical exercise, vibration can provide some of the support.
In short, is vibration good for autism?
Each child with autism experiences a variety of different sensory, behavior, and communication challenges and, because of this, it’s important that every child receives individualized treatments. Vibration therapy has been shown as effective for some autistic children, but it won’t necessarily help every individual.
It’s important to note that not all children will enjoy vibration, so it’s essential for parents to be mindful of their unique child’s needs and demands before considering this form of therapy for their loved ones.
Bressel, E., Gibbons, M. W., & Samaha, A. (2011). Effect of whole body vibration on stereotypy of young children with autism. BMJ case reports, 2011, bcr0220113834. https://doi.org/10.1136/bcr.02.2011.3834
Zelinski, K. (2020), The benefits of vibration therapy, https://www.arktherapeutic.com/blog/the-benefits-of-vibration/