Teaching Research Institute

TRI awarded grant for autism massage research

Western Oregon University’s (WOU) Teaching Research Institute (TRI) has received a three-year award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Maternal and Child Health Bureau for $842,382 to conduct research on parent-delivered massage for young children with autism. The award extends research conducted through TRI that has focused on the impact of parental massage on young children with special needs.

Children with autism suffer severe developmental delays and behavioral problems. Often they have abnormal responses to touch such that they avoid touch on some areas of the body, yet do not seem to notice injury on others. According to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, about one in 88 children are identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Oregon Department of Education reported 8,694 school-aged children with autism in the 2011-12 school year.

Parent touch is the oldest and most effective means to calm young children, help them focus, and regulate their behavior. It is far more effective than verbal or visual means. Yet many parents of children with autism begin to avoid using touch because their children don’t respond normally to it.

For the past decade, TRI at WOU has been involved in training parents to give a specific 15-minute massage to their children daily. Results show that the massage is effective in reversing the difficulties with touch. Children become calmer, more comfortable, are better able to learn, and have improved behavior.

The massage is based on Chinese medicine. There are specific techniques for each area of difficulty (e.g. the head, fingers and toes). Families receive support to help them learn the program. After a few months, the massage becomes relaxing and enjoyable, and parent touch comes back into use to effectively help the child self-regulate. After five months, studies show promising improvements in social development and behavior. The daily massage program is continued for a year for full effect. According to one parent, “When we believed that autism was permanent and unchangeable, we didn’t think of trying to improve it. Now we believe autism is treatable; we do the massage every day.”

One hundred twenty Oregon families will have the opportunity to participate in the study. Children with autism under the age of six will be eligible. Families enrolled in the study will receive free treatment. Participants will be recruited from the Portland, Salem, Albany/Corvallis, and Eugene areas, and will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Those interested in learning more about the study can visit qsti.org or call 503-585-9239.

WOU’s Teaching Research Institute houses eight centers focused on informing and facilitating change in educational and human service systems to improve the quality of life for all individuals. Funded through external grants, the centers conduct programs of research, develop evidence-based interventions that are provided through technical assistance and professional development, and increase system capacity to effect change. TRI has over a 50-year history of research and provision of technical assistance and training.

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