As a mother and occupational therapist, I have found aromatherapy to be an easy and surprisingly effective way to treat some symptoms of sensory processing disorders (SPD) including autism. It is inexpensive, uses products often found at home and is non-invasive.
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils (made from plants and flowers) for therapeutic or healing purposes. Aromatherapy awakens and integrates our sense of smell, an essential component in sensory integration.
When our olfactory system is balanced, we are able to eat and enjoy a variety of foods. A balanced olfactory system also helps evoke memories long forgotten and, depending on the scent, may have certain mood enhancing properties. To understand how powerful the sense of smell is we can look into the marketing world, where the sense of smell has long been used to affect sales in real estate, hotel and even car sales.
The mood enhancing qualities of certain scents are especially useful for children who love exploring their newfound senses. Children are able to more easily connect certain scents with positive or negative feelings than adults.
I frequently use aromatherapy at Thrive Occupational Therapy as a simple and effective way to awaken the sleepy child or calm down the wound-up one.
Aromatherapy and Sensory Processing Disorders
Lavender, chamomile, vanilla and banana—this is not a recipe, nor is it a spa menu. It’s a list of just a few of the scents used in aromatherapy.
The ability for aromatherapy to trigger the senses makes it an ideal non-invasive treatment for children with autism and children with sensory integration disorders in general. The flowers and oils used in aromatherapy are inherently calming and enable children with SPD to keep calm when feelings of anxiety overwhelm them.
How To Do Aromatherapy with Children
There are two basic methods of using aromatherapy—smelling it directly (inhalation) or absorbing it into skin (topical). Inhalation can be achieved through a humidifier, spray bottle or diffuser.If you are spraying the essential oil, be sure to dilute it with water.
A topical application is done by massage. Be sure to see the warning in the Aromatherapy Tips section, below.
- Calming Down a Child: I take banana, vanilla and lavender and put it in a sachet near the child’s pillow to calm them down at night. Alternatively, you can drop some drops of essential oils in a spray bottle and spray it in the bath or in a child’s room as part of the winding down bedtime routine. These scents promote a sense of relaxation.
- Waking Up a Sleepy Child: I use peppermint or lemon to help kids who are lethargic. You can certainly use the spray method mentioned above or just take a fresh lemon from the fridge and have your child smell it. If you want to integrate taste and smell, you can have your child taste a bit of fresh lemon or peppermint. These scents promote an energetic feeling.
- Promoting Joy and Mood Enhancement: You can use lemon, mandarin, rose, geranium, chamomile and jasmine oils or even have the child smell fresh lemons and mandarins. Take a stroll through your garden if you have one. Using fresh roses and geraniums are a great way to promote happiness and enjoy the outdoors.
- Helping Integrate Smell In General: I like to play smelling-games with my children and try to see if they can guess the difference between smells. I use an assortment of bitter, sour or unappealing smells as well as delicious or appealing smells. For instance, I might contrast cherry, orange or vanilla with pepper, fish oil or yogurt. You may be surprised how many children only smell unpleasant smells and don’t have a strong ability to discern pleasant smells. If this is the case with your child, be sure to share this with his occupational therapist if he is being treated by one. This can give the OT some important information about your child’s sensory processing system.
The sense of smell is the least studied of our senses although it is one of the most powerful. We can smell something and without realizing it, it can take us back to a memory long ago with all of the emotions associated with it. I encourage my clients and their parents to learn to recognize the smells around them and understand how it influences their lives and emotions. This can be a powerful tool in our awareness of our surroundings.
Do not apply essential oils directly onto infant, child’s or adults’ skin. Instead, use a carrier oil (any type of vegetable oil such as coconut or almond oil) to dilute the essential oil. Even oils, such as lavender and chamomile, that are generally regarded as safe can cause severe skin irritation.
Not all essential oils are suitable for children. Consult a qualified aromatherapist, book, or web site for specific instructions.
Aromatherapy is not an alternative to prescribed medication—always consult with your pediatrician before use.