Thursday, June 2, 2011

Can Back Scratches Help with Sensory Integration Disorder?

Can scratching the back of a boy with autism help keep him calm?

Long-time readers know that I have an analytical side that likes to examine things I notice that might be affecting my son’s behavior.

In the past, I’ve hypothesized that compression shirts can help Kai have good days at school, while low barometric pressure bring on bad ones.

My latest theory is that giving my son a good back rub in the morning leads to a better day at school.

I started scratching Kai’s back a few weeks ago. As he has been sleeping somewhat better these days, I’m finding that more often I need to wake him up instead of the previous routine of him waking us up early. Rather than yelling for him to wake up as I was doing before, I’ve been trying a more soothing approach.

I had read of a technique called ‘body brushing’ that can help soothe the nervous system in children with sensory integration disorder, which many kids with autism have. The technique involves brushing a child’s arms, back, legs, and soles of the feet with a soft surgical brush, using long, deep strokes. The brushing should be done for three to five minutes.

I didn’t have a surgical brush, but wondered if similar results could be obtained by scratching my son’s back with long, deep strokes of the tips of my fingers. So, most mornings for the past few weeks, I have been waking Kai up with three minutes of back scratching.

As a wakeup technique, I recommend it. Kai really likes it, and always seems much more relaxed immediately afterward.

But does it have longer-term effects?

So far, he’s had a string of really good days at school since I started doing the back scratches. And, interesting enough, on the few days when I did not do it for various reasons (like being rushed for time, or Kai wanting to forego it so that he could use the computer), he did not perform as well in school as on the days that he got the back scratches.

It is definitely too soon to say that there is a causal relationship. And perhaps an OT can confirm or debunk my theory. The body brushing is supposed to be done every two hours, so just one back scratch in the morning may not be sufficient anyway.

But, it is something that has my attention right now.

I’ll be curious to see if the results hold up over time. If any of you have had any similar experiences, please let me know.


  1. Although I have never tried the brushing technique... I have been consciously giving my son extra hardy hugs with a massaging of his major muscles for a few seconds afterward to ensure he becomes conscious of them. He now (a good sign) says that I am too vigorous in my application. I have toned them down. I know that initially he wasn't so aware of his body. He had to concentrate on placement of his limbs as he walked...where it was natural for other children of his age.

    Now, his weight lifting and Karate has greatly improved his kinesthetic awareness.

    Of course...I still give him hardy hugs often throughout the day...but it is now more for me than him. :)

  2. Nice!

    Kai still loves hugs... it's one thing that I kind of hope does not change, though, as with you and your son, we can always keep giving him hugs for ourselves even if he doesn't ask for them. :)


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