Essential Oils in the Autistic Classroom – Pilot Study
by Monika Meulman – 2009
We live in a world surrounded by ever evolving dis-ease. Now that I am a parent, I seem to be consumed by all traditional worries: germs, eating processed foods, exposure to dangerous plastics, dyes and food additives.
What fuels that worry is the dramatic rise in ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder. At my daughter ’s school, there are several classrooms dedicated just for helping children learn with ASD. In a recent updater course on the chemical function of essential oils, I realized that they can be quite effective tools for treating/helping ASD. I approached the principal at my daughter ’s school to see if I can design and carry out a pilot study working with a classroom full of ASD children. The principal was welcoming and supportive. What I have found thus far is quite surprising: the children were quite affected by the classroom sessions and even took personal liking to specific essential oils such as cinnamon bark, frankincense, and bergamot.
Background – Why Autism?
There has been an explosion of research in the past 10 years within the autism disorders field. According to the National Institute of Mental Health: “Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), also known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs), cause severe and pervasive impairment in thinking, feeling, language, and the ability to relate to others. These disorders are usually first diagnosed in early childhood and range from a severe form, called autistic disorder, through pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), to a much milder form, Asperger syndrome.
They also include two rare disorders, Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.” There has likewise, been an explosion of diagnosis in this field of disorders. In 1997 the estimated number of children with autism was 1 in every 1500 in the USA. The Autism Society in America website (www.autism-society.org) notes that “in February 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued their ADDM autism prevalence report. The report, which looked at a sample of 8 year olds in 2000 and 2002, concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 150 American children, and almost 1 in 94 boys.” With no known cure and very few means of mediating and improving the life and learning for children with ASD, we need to focus as much research and time as possible to finding new means of help.
This pilot study is one such way we can strive to improve and ease a child’s life when learning and acquiring new skills in the classroom setting. In the Autism Advocate (fifth edition, 2006) John Green, M.D. wrote a short article on the Biomedical Treatment of Autism. When defining healing, I conclude with his words: “For children with autism spectrum disorders, healing happens through removing obstacles and strengthening weak systems by supplementing for physiologic deficiencies and providing corrective therapies.”
Why use Essential Oil Therapy in ASD?
Aromatherapy is a strong science using pure essential oils (plant aromatic extracts) in healing, restoring the body’s imbalances via aromatherapy massage, aromatherapy baths, essential oil inhalations, and essential oil supplements. Essential oils are powerful aromatic compounds. Their effects on our body can be instant and long-lasting.
We have 347 smell receptors that have been identified in the human genome project. The touch and olfactory senses are the first two to develop in the womb. Knowing this, we can conclude that the sense of smell is almost as vital to our survival and development as the sense of touch. Furthermore, the olfactory bulb and its relation to our limbic system ensures that the olfactory nerves have the shortest pathway to the brain of all our senses. Simply put: an aromatic molecule has the potential to be the fastest modifier of behavior, our central nervous system (CNS), and even our thought processes. It is because of this connection between the olfactory system and the brain/blood barrier that we can assume and hope that some aromatic molecules (components of essential oils) can have an effect on autistic behavior.
How does inhaling essences work to our behavioral advantage?
In experiments involving stimulation of the left and right nostrils with pleasant and unpleasant fragrances, researchers have found differences in olfactory cortical neuron activity in the left and right hemispheres of the brain which correlate with the ‘pleasantness ratings’ of the odorants. These studies are claimed to indicate that positive emotions are predominantly processed by the left hemisphere of the brain, while negative emotions are more often processed by the right hemisphere. •The ‘pleasant’ odorant used in these experiments, as in many others, was vanillin. from article by Social Issues Research Centre ( http://www.sirc.org/publik/smell_emotion.html)
Objectives in this Study:
Using Essential Oils to aid in removing obstacles such as
- Anger and frustration
- Inability to concentrate
Using Essential Oils to aid in providing:
- Quick & Effective calming agent
- Consistent personal treatment
The Pilot Study Outline
Focus on In-Classroom Time with Mild to Medium level autistic children: 25-30 minutes (circle time on the carpet).
- Pre and post study questionnaire was used for each child
- Use 6 single essential oils, 1 per week in the classroom
- Provide background information about oils to the teachers and teacher aides (and parents) each week
- Provide children time with each essential oil, under supervision
- Provide inhaler with chosen essential oil for each child for classroom and home use
This Autism Pilot Study Specifics:
- 6 children in 1 autism specific classroom
- all boys ages 6-8
- 5 teachers/teacher aides present
- introduced essential oils: bergamot, lavender, benzoin, cinnamon, frankincense, neroli
- consistent oil experience provided via white muslin tea bags scented with drops of essential oil
- 25-30 minute ‘carpet’ circle time 1 week, for 6 weeks
- each child chose 1 inhaler oil for personal use
- once classroom visits were concluded, oils could be used at home
Essential Oil Choosing Guideline
Oils we chose based on their known chemical composition and known to be soothing and calming:
Bergamot – Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia
Lavender – Lavandula angustifolia
Benzoin – Styrax benzoin
Neroli – Citrus aurantium
Cinnamon Bark – Cinnamonum zeylanicum
Frankincense – Boswellia carterii
Results of the Pilot Study:
Diagram: Measured Essential Oil effectiveness in sitting ‘carpet’ time, during weekly visits 0 10 20 average time spent by each child, on carpet for oil talk/interaction (in minutes)
Oils selected by the children, for personal inhalers, after 6 week introduction to all oils:
(ranked by popularity)
Note: None of the children chose Neroli or Lavender.
In our short pilot study, we have found that essential oils can instantly affect the behaviour of the autistic child in the classroom setting. Most interestingly, lavender became a stimulant when each child received a tea bag infused with lavender drops. Even the teachers found the smell overpowering.
Contrastingly, frankincense elicited a pleasant and inquiring response from some children and the teachers. The most successful oils in calming and focusing, were cinnamon bark and benzoin. The children fidgeted less, were more likely to listen to me and the teachers, and were more involved in my question and answer games when we used the deep oils: benzoin, frankincense, and cinnamon.
When we used bergamot and neroli, the classroom felt calmer but fidgeting continued throughout the sessions. Also, the introduction of bergamot and cinnamon elicited more smiles, jokes, and a generally happier atmosphere. Two of the boys specifically chose bergamot because it made them feel good. One highly functioning autistic boy chose cinnamon to help him calm down. He had already been taught yoga poses that helped him in an anxious situation. A combination of yoga and essential oils can be quite a long term effective tool for minimizing disruption, when learning in the classroom.
What more can we do?
Further autistic child groups with identical presentation of essential oils, will increase our data and sample sizes. Using the same presentation on other children working with behaviour challenges, will allow us to compare effects of the same oils on different challenges in behavior. In the fall we will be introducing oils to another autistic classroom, where the behavior challenges are far more varied and extreme.
How can we support the teachers?
Working with children in the classroom allows the teachers to learn, benefit and enjoy the oils as well. Currently, the school boards are equipped with catalogues full of teacher aids, which are available to order. We have seen that there are pages of aromatherapy aids in these catalogues. Unfortunately, the essential oils offered may or may not be of superior quality and in some cases are blended with other oils, which may not help each student.
Thus, I encourage you to speak to schools, teachers, and primary care givers with ASD children and emphasize the importance of one-on-one aromatherapy. Each child is different and has different needs. Lastly, we need to involve parents in studies to allow the parents to learn through their children. One parent refused use of cinnamon bark with her child since the origin was China. It is our understanding the parents believed an oil extracted in China would be tainted with plastic and caustic dyes. Education and continuous community outreach about aromatherapy and essential oils is vital to dissipate this kind of wrongful belief and lack of understanding aromatherapy.
Would like to participate or set up this study at your school? Please let us know.
Have you used essential oils in the Autistic classroom? Please share your comments and findings.