Ollie was slow to speak—I believe he was intensely absorbing instead! For the first three years of his life, he appeared to be on total sensory overload. As he grew, it became increasingly clear that he was very bright, but he lacked the ability to read and process faces and body language or to second guess social situations. One reception teacher remarked to me one day that she “didn’t know which box Ollie fitted into.” Ollie retreated into a wonderful 3D world of words, compiling lists of vocabulary and writing endless stories and poems. Contrary to established myths about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Ollie is full of empathy and feeling, these emotions being the focus of his writing. He is a magical Shape Shifter with ink in his veins. Writing is his gift, his song, and for a long time, it was the life raft that got him through mainstream school and into the gifted and talented sets at middle school.On October 8th, 1997, my life changed forever with the birth of my son, Ollie. I knew from the very start that he was “different,” but nothing could have prepared me for the journey ahead: the utter heartache, the immense highs, the tough battles, and the total lack of understanding and support surrounding us. As a mother, I am always “learning on the job.” It can be a rollercoaster ride, but the blessings and gifts my Ollie has brought far outweigh the challenges and frustrations.
Imagine then his distress and utter heartbreak when, upon joining the large mainstream school nearby at 13, he was instantly and without warning dropped into bottom sets because his autism meant he couldn’t do multiple choice and line up booklets or infer in reading comprehensions. I argued and pleaded to no avail. I fought for funding for Ollie to access the higher English General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in a different format. However, this funding was spent elsewhere on children who were a safer bet, and I was told that Ollie would “never achieve.” He sobbed great primal sobs that tore out of his chest, saying, “I’m broken, Mummy. Am I disabled?”
Ollie spiraled, became suicidal, and picked up all sorts of mental health issues, including debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and borderline psychosis. Offered Prozac, it was at this point that I began massaging my son in sheer desperation. The traditional way I had been trained was far too invasive, so together we refined it, specializing it to make it much more gentle, supportive, and nurturing. From the very first night, Ollie began sleeping well, and within a month, the OCD was more manageable. Ollie began to feel he could cope and function. The voices stopped. The anxiety lessened. The stress levels noticeably lowered, and Ollie was no longer existing in a perpetual state of fight or flight.
The results were so astounding that I took my method to every school and specialist academy in the area and worked for free for six months, keeping detailed case studies. I certainly couldn’t afford to do this, but this was unchartered territory and I had to prove it worked. Within six weeks, I was being paid. Within six months I had a burgeoning business with long waiting lists, and within a year, I was writing for magazines such as Autism Eye. I now take this work all over the world, training charities, teachers, other professionals, and parents. I am also engaged in public speaking to raise awareness for these fantastic children.
Why and how does massage work?
Well, within 40 seconds of putting your hands on someone, oxytocin—the hormone of wellbeing—is released, instantly calming and relaxing the recipient. This can be measured scientifically.
Serotonin, the “happy” hormone, is also stimulated particularly when you massage the temples and temporal lobes of the head, because serotonin is produced in the pituitary, which is located in this region. Most children with autism have higher levels of stress in their bodies than “regular” children, so filling them with oxytocin and serotonin is the perfect antidote to easing them from that fight or flight, sympathetic state into the more restful, “parasympathetic” state. Massage directly and instantly effects the nervous system in this way.
The “pleasure” hormone, dopamine, and its strong links to the executive or higher brain functions such as attention, focus, motivation, concentration, productivity, and organization, is also stimulated naturally through massage. Produced in the hypothalamus, dopamine travels to and is stored in the pituitary, so massaging the temple region of the head is deeply beneficial.
Massaging the frontal lobe stimulates the higher brain functions too, including forward planning, judging consequences, and creativity. The pineal is stimulated as well, promoting better deeper sleep along with a balancing and regulating of mood and aggression.
Our heads really are a map of who we are, and the brain has specific areas for specific tasks. It’s amazing! By massaging the head, we stimulate those areas. Did you know we even have areas for reading and processing faces, social cognition, sensory association, eye contact, and empathy? Obviously, by stimulating all the blood and oxygen in the brain, concentration, productivity, and clear thinking are promoted, too.
The scientific research
We also have something called the enteric, or second brain. Huge amounts of scientific research have gone into this topic by doctors like Michael Gershon, MD, author of The Second Brain. There are more neurotransmitters in the gut, where the second brain is located, than in the entire spinal cord. Many of those neurotransmitters act like serotonin and dopamine. This area is a mega storage area for everything we “squash” down or don’t “digest,” from fear, anxiety, and anger to trauma and frustration. By massaging the lower back and the face (particularly under the eyes) where so many meridians to the gut begin or end, you are easing and relaxing this area, thus reducing those feelings of rage or frustration in a controlled way.
Massaging long term also helps with the emotional brain and the patterns and responses we store there. This is located in the amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped piece of anatomy located on either side of the head. If you imagine putting a knitting needle through your eye and one through your ear, it’s at the point where they meet that the amygdala is located! It is here that many of our emotional responses to external stimuli, especially those having to do with fear, are stored up until the age of about seven. Again, huge amounts of research have gone into this, notably by Joseph Le Doux, author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life.
Massage works, therefore, on physical, mental, and emotional levels. A happy, calm child is a productive, confident child, and that spills over into a calm and much more inclusive classroom. It’s a win-win situation.
These amazing children all have gifts and strengths beyond their labels. With the right support and nurture. they bloom. My Ollie did, and for all I might have achieved in my life, nothing surpasses the fact that he went on to achieve 11 A-C grade GCSEs, and although his dreams of English were shattered, he is now in his first year at his first-choice university, reading creative writing and publishing. When I wrote a short post about this on LinkedIn last April, the post went viral with over 40,000 likes and comments. My boy brought hope and inspiration to families living with autism all over the world.
Giuliana Fenwick is the author of Indian Head Massage for Special Needs, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing. She is also a therapist, teacher, public speaker, and fundraiser. Fenwick writes articles for national and international magazines and for autism organizations in America (Icare4autism and differentbrains.com).
For more information about Giuliana or her trainings and events, please go to www.therapiesforspecialneeds.co.uk or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was featured in Issue 63 – Keeping Our Kids Safe