Sunday, 13 May 2018

Autism & Aromatherapy

So, a weird thing happens as I get older (which is not limited to my body drifting in a more southerly direction and growing stubbornly wider.... although, that's weird enough); I've noticed that an inverse rule now applies to what I really know.  What I mean is, the older I get, the less I know.
Stuff that I thought was permanent and solid can vanish in a heartbeat (houses fall, banks crash and careers burn) while it turns out the more ethereal stuff is the real deal.
In a nutshell, the only thing I know with absolute certainty is who I love (with the hope that they might kinda like me back; a very effective tactic I use is to annoy people into caring about me.  Try it... worst case scenario, if they dump you, you get to write some really bad poetry about it and you'll be famous after you die).  Everything else has variables attached that make them subject to change.
One of these things I knew when I was younger was that I loved aromatherapy with all my heart; now I still love it, but in a conditional way.... kinda like a cute puppy that's adorable as long as he doesn't piss on your mattress.

Smell is very strongly attached to our memories and emotions, so it makes sense that certain fragrances can affect our humour for better or worse.  Anytime I smell a particular toffee, I'm immediately a young child in my elderly neighbour's kitchen, and she's teaching me to read (she also used to churn her own butter; how cool is that?).  The smell of blackthorn brings me back to standing in a field as a kid and watching a hawk snatch a bird out of a tree.  If I could bottle the ineffable smell of a newborn baby, a whole new level of addiction would be created that'd outstrip meth, heroin and crack cocaine combined.

not a bottle of  Shiraz in sight... must be an oversight

So, our sense of smell is visceral and immediate, and has helped us survive by showing us where food is and alerting us to dangers (I'm not sure if a person with an aversion to deodorant qualifies as a threat to survival, but at least you'd know not to sit next to him on a bus).

But are particular aromas powerful enough to affect our well-being?
Aromatherapy is the use of plant oils to improve health and emotional well-being.   Compounds are extracted from plants using distillation, and are applied topically as massage oils, by immersion in water, or through inhalation. It's been around for thousands of years... but so has arsenic, so longevity is not always an indicator of wholesomeness.  It's believed that aromatherapy works either by the direct effect of the oil on the physical body, or indirectly by influencing the emotional centre of the brain.  But the truth is, that it has little effect on either.  Apart from making your house smell nicer than a wet dog's undercarriage,  there is little evidence to suggest that aromatherapy bears any influence on our health.  Although some papers find that it reduces anxiety (which is very welcome), and many sites promote it's use to reduce anxiety associated with Autism, I think a healthy dose of caution needs to be exercised before getting to know your bergamont from your BS. 
Firstly, it's likely that the massage itself, rather than the specific oil used, is the magic that will soothe your child.  My own son loves a really deep massage, but I'm pretty sure a handful of Nutella would have the same pharmacological effect on him as a spoon of jojoba oil (and he could lick himself clean afterwards.... win-win).  I can't find any evidence to support the use of essential oils for Autism, but a pretty interesting study is underway at the moment researching the use of 18 different compounds and their effect on sleep and relaxation. 
There are also risks to consider; oils are pretty concentrated and can irritate the skin, so they should always be diluted in a carrier oil.  Allergies can develop with repeated exposure, and some are toxic if swallowed. 
Your child might be sensitive to smells, so don't rush in with a shed-load of heady scents unless you're prepared to end up wearing more lavender oil than applying it.

Although Aromatherapy is huge business, and particular oils are touted as being especially beneficial for Autism, the focus thankfully seems to be on treatment of anxiety rather than promising cures.  It can work out expensive, though, especially if you're paying for massages rather than giving them yourself. 

So, Aromatherapy can provide an opportunity to bond with your child, and maybe help your home smell better than a teenager's trainer; as long as you don't have any unrealistic expectations, and you're watchful for any side effects,  it sounds like a nice thing to do.