This week is autism awareness week. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD are described as neuro-atypical, meaning their minds do not process things in typical ways. Autism is not an illness and cannot be cured. People are born that way and can live full and happy lives, but occasionally may need support. Today, we’ll think about essential oils for autism.
In 1943, psychologist Hans Leiber wrote a paper describing 11 children in his practice who didn’t seem to lean towards interaction with other people and were more focused on objects and repetition to calm them. Today, it is estimated that one in every hundred people is believed to have some autistic traits, and experts believe the figure is probably higher.
People on the autistic spectrum often have different ways of learning, paying attention and moving. They can experience problems with social interaction and communication, and many restrict themselves to repetitive behaviors and interests.
Autistic people often find it difficult to understand how other people think or feel and may act differently. Their way of processing information means they can be at a disadvantage in understanding information, in particular social cues. This means they can become overwhelmed by external stimuli. Bright lights or loud noises can be overwhelming, and they may get very stressed by unusual situations and social events since there is so much more information to compute, and much of that they may process more slowly.
How is Autism Characterized?
This is almost impossible to do. The term "spectrum" refers to a person's wide range of severity and symptoms.
There are three main characteristics of autism: poorly developed social skills, difficulty with expressive and receptive communication, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors.
All autistic people find different things difficult, but a good example would be situations with no timetables or 'rules' around things...
Autism spectrum disorder includes conditions that have previously been considered separate. Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and an unspecified form of Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
Some people, including me, still use the term "Asperger's syndrome," which is generally thought to be at the mild end of autism spectrum disorder.
One of my sons has Asperger’s Syndrome. His traits and behaviors are very different from someone else who may be diagnosed on the spectrum. Likewise, as a child, he was generally extremely “different” from other people, but as he has grown older, he functions quite typically. He’s astonishingly clever (he has a Master’s in Maths from Oxford), but otherwise, you would not notice anything different. As long as he is not stressed, you would hardly know there was a disorder. Thus, the spectrum also may refer to the changeability of symptoms based on a person's situation.
Do Essential Oils help Autism?
I think that’s a yes and no question. Can they cure someone? No, nothing can cure autism because it's not an illness.
It is as much a part of someone’s makeup as their skin color. You can’t fix something that’s not broken, and this is certainly the case here.
On the other hand, much of the characterization of autism is about stressful situations and overstimulation. Here, essential oils are certainly helpful.
How to Use Essential Oils for Autism
Consider the paradox here.
An autistic child finds themselves in an already challenging situation, so a well-meaning person gives them some lavender oil to smell.
The smell of lavender smells like grandma, but I can’t see grandma here. Why can I smell grandma? I know this also smells like the garden, but I can’t smell any lavender bushes either…
This doesn’t make sense!
Things that don’t make sense are stressful…
Adding a new element to an already hard-to-read situation will only add stress. Using essential oils for autism takes time, patience and a delicate hand, and we’ll address that in bits as we move forward.
Fundamentally, in aromatherapy, regardless of whether someone is neurodivergent, they recognize that the sense of smell is complex and that a reaction to fragrance is intimately unique. As the brain processes a fragrance, it matches it to both memory and mood, and it is uniquely connected to learning.
Three things need to be considered for essential oils to work well in stressful situations. From now on, I shall change the pronoun from them to you to help you employ the tactics easier with children.
1. How Does the Fragrance Make You Feel?
Oils like lavender or frankincense should make you feel calmer, but if someone was unfortunate enough to have been sexually abused by a priest at an altar, that certainly wouldn’t be the case. The frankincense will have profoundly negative associations, and the person may be unable to explain why. (Apologies for the vivid imagery. I mean to make no negative assumptions about the Catholic Church)
Remember that memory and fragrance are linked.
That said, there may be many reasons why someone might not like a fragrance, and dislike certainly does not imply trauma, although it may.
2. Fragrance and Mood are Linked
The fragrance can move you through time in the same way as music does. Someone had written something astute on a YouTube video I saw last week. They’d written: “You can sing the words of a song as many times as you like but it’s only when your heart’s breaking that you understand them.”
The same is true with fragrance. The emotional connection is more than just the sound or smell.
Yes, the molecules of lavender are calming. Still, if lavender transports an autistic child back to the safety of a sensory room, with all his lights on, surrounded by his favorite things, it will be much more successful.
The situation gives context because the person understands the journey the oil is supposed to take them on. The predictability of it is reassuring.
3. The Effects of Essential Oils are Cumulative
I often talk about trials done on women who have painful periods. Their symptoms slightly improved in the first month but significantly improved in the second. The oils didn't change; the body got better at using them.
But in ASD, predictability is king.
Repetition is soothing, and routines calm them down. Thus, the routine is part of the success here. Condition the mind while the person is calm, then take that calmness with you.
So, do not introduce essential oils for autism into already stressful situations. All you will do is add to sensory overload.
Pre-empt it by having a drop on teddy’s head when you walk in there.
Essential Oils for Autism
Ordinarily, I would group knowledge into each essential oil, but it makes no sense in this article. We’ll talk about some of the most common traits and give suggestions for oils that may be able to help you.
Some Essential Oils for Autism Issues Suggestions
Social Communication Difficulties
People with autism often find interpreting the tone of voice or body language difficult. They may have good language skills but struggle to recognize if someone’s tone changes or if they become sarcastic. Some autistic people speak very rarely or are even mute.
There are three main areas here.
People often take things literally and do not understand the abstract concepts behind them.
My son was/is frustratingly slow physically.
Everything takes ten times as long as you’d hoped for. One day we were getting on the school bus, but it was a different bus than usual. So Andrew had to take in every aspect before he would get on it. The queue was audibly agitated behind me.
I said, “C’mon, you’re holding up the bus.” He looked bewildered, put his thumb under the shoulder strap of his backpack and said, “No, this is my bag.”
An old man behind me muttered, “cheeky little s**t. He needs a good hiding.” But of course, he wasn’t trying to be obtuse - although he definitely can be - he genuinely believed the only thing he could be holding up was his bag.
The other phrase that got him into real trouble once was, “You need to pull your socks up, young man,” which one of his PE teachers once said. He did, got reprimanded, kicked off and eventually got himself suspended. We’re going back ten years now. I’m not sure any teacher would make that mistake now, but then, his diagnosis was very much in his infancy.
A couple of great oils for these kinds of situations are petitgrain and mandarin. You’ll notice they are both orangey. The orange smell is very happy, positive and hopeful. These oils speak to curiosity.
Use mandarin to associate with curiosity.
Autistic minds work at a different rate of knots to the rest of us, and they can be very prone to going down the rabbit hole only to appear exactly where they started.
We used to marvel at how any conversation could be steered back to computers in around 26 words…no matter where it started. But, en route, soooo much data was accrued.
Both Mandarin and Petitgrain speak to the interesting journey your mind goes on. All of the citruses do, really, so experiment with that. You might discover your autistic person even has a whole vocabulary around how citruses feel like storytelling and their thirst for knowledge.
New bus…how interesting…mandarin.
As opposed to No, that’s not the bus we go on.
Many people with autism repeat things others say, almost like chanting or saying things that seem out of place. This is called echolalia, and I think it can be uncomfortable.
Andy only had one word till he was 3 ½, and that was Ma-man. Not mother, but Batman, specifically Adam West. Everything stopped for Batman and Robin. His speech never worried me that much. I was more worried about the tantrums.
Then one day, he said, “Eat your tea up nicely,” and I nearly fell off my chair. I had been mimicked, but there was no dinner to be seen anywhere. It felt like sarcasm, but over time I understood that “Eat your tea up nicely” was his way of telling me he was hungry.
From then on he learned to speak in sentences, never odd words. He sounded like a little lawyer. Only recently have I discovered this is a trademark of autism.
Children copy things you say in sentences as a way of remembering them or rehearsing them. The problem is that they often say them out of context.
So, to begin with, “Eat your tea up nicely,” I now realize I had nothing to do with manners either; it was simply related to food. I put food in front of him; that’s what I said, so that phrase meant food. Because he learned it as a sentence, the broken-down words of the sentence didn’t hold meaning.
It became further complicated because his favorite drink was tea…but that’s a whole other episode.
Consider the child that wants the other kids to play with him. He remembers “1,2,3 you’re it” was the phrase in the fun bit, so he’ll keep using it now. An intelligent strategy when you think about it, but incredibly irritating if you don’t want to play.
Nevertheless, an ASD child who wants to play so often will rehearse how he might get that to happen, resulting in this “123 you're it” repeatedly out of context.
Out of Place Recall
This might present as the person copying what you say…but much later in the conversation. Their brain takes a while to get there so the conversation may have moved on.
I certainly learned to mind my Ps and Qs with this one.
I can’t remember why we were at the hospital, but we must have been supporting someone else, I think, because we got sick of waiting to be seen, so I suggested we go and see if we could find a drink.
As you know, hospitals are like rabbit warrens. You won’t know I have a terrible sense of direction, so we wandered for ages. He would no longer hold hands and walk, chimpanzeeing along the corridor.
I’m a big believer in picking your battles.
“Mind this man.”
“The one in the red jacket”
“Ok, mind the man in the red jacket!
“And, mind the lady with the pretty hair.”
“Mind the lady with pretty hair.”
And this enormous man comes down very slowly. He must have been forty stone, struggling to walk, and Andrew is barrelling like a baby primate straight for him. So, I know I can’t give the usual instruction, so I grab his arm and ask him to wait until we have passed the man.
“I don’t want to stop chimpanzeeing”?
“Just for a minute because this man needs more room, doesn’t he?
“Because he’s really fat?”
“Well, yes, really.”
“He’s the fattest man I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes, he is big, but we should be kind because he might be here because he’s ill.
That all goes quite well until we return after a cuppa ten minutes later and discover we are heading straight for the same man.
Do you know how you can see thought bubbles above people’s heads sometimes…?
I could feel the head-on collision coming, but there was no way to stop it because I knew if I said it, he would copy…
He didn’t speak, though. Nope, not a word, and I honestly thought I’d escaped it.
That is until we were right next to him, and he announced proudly…
“No chimpanzeeing because the fattest man I’ve ever seen needs more room….”
The words were right. It was very kind. But it didn't come out that way because it took him ages to give them context. My desire for the ground to swallow me up was much quicker.
People often cite rosemary and peppermint for focusing the mind, but these are too stimulating. Likewise, sweet basil makes even neurotypical people speak their minds…this can be rather a shocker. I’d go vetiver, and I put this on unvarnished pencils for my other son with dyslexia. Everything slows down with vetiver. It’s extremely calming and soothing but helps you concentrate in chaos. I’d be interested in hearing from people who have used it with Tourette’s also.
Social interaction Issues
As stated, autistic people often struggle to 'read' other people. For example, many cannot read facial expressions, making understanding others' feelings and intentions difficult. Without this mirror on the world, expressing their emotions can be incongruent and often appear insensitive.
Their behavior may appear strange or could be construed as socially inappropriate. Many find forming friendships challenging.
When the world is fraught with many challenges, we can see how they may find other people overwhelming and often withdraw for time alone. Some may not seek comfort from other people.
I once had a set of three head teachers of special schools, all studying together on a course I was teaching. Many of their case histories focus on essential oils for autism and other learning difficulties they encountered.
One of them entered the most beautiful study with geranium. She’d been putting a single drop on the T-shirt one of her students was wearing. This little boy was profoundly autistic and was prone to banging his head on the wall when frustrated.
I always say that geranium takes the world's weight off your shoulders, and that was clearly very true for this little boy. He learned to find the geranium within days, and the headbanging was abated. It was the most profound work I have ever seen of anyone. Sometimes you don’t need loads of essential oils for autism; one smell that represents calm will be enough.
For the boy and his family, one drop of geranium was life-changing.
Sensory Sensitivity or Processing Difficulties
Many autistic people experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colors, temperatures or pain. Where other people may be able to block out background noise, they find it overwhelming. For some people, this can manifest as anxiety; for others, it can even cause physical pain. Touch can disconcert or hurt many autistic people, so they do not like being hugged. This can often be misinterpreted as being aloof.
Schools, workplaces and shopping malls can all cause sensory overload, so adjustments should be made to make environments more autism-friendly.
Here I am going to point out that scent travels. Autistic people can often be just as overstimulated by fragrance as they are to light and sound. Consequently, it would help if you were mindful that a fragrance that is good for your child might be hellish for another child in the classroom.
It’s also worth considering the volatility of the oils. Citruses and top notes travel far and wide quickly, whereas base notes are much slower. Base notes are better for anxiety because they bring the energy down from the head and into the body.
Frankincense is comforting.
Difficulties Relating to Others
When Andy was four, he had two favorite sayings “I always right” and “when I five, I going to be a girl.” You could be forgiven for thinking that one disproved the other but didn’t.
When he was older, he could explain that he thought his fifth birthday would bring about such changes because he didn’t know any five-year-old boys, and so deduced that all five-year-olds were girls. Hence…
He would not be corrected, but there have been a few occasions when he could be.
Fixed opinions are very much the order of the day…as is fixation.
Difficulties With the Flexibility of Thought
This is the realm of the chamomiles. Those who regularly read my work will know I always say chamomile oils sing to me: “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be.” This is a powerful medicine for someone with autism. It softens the angsty round-and-round loop they can get themselves into. It also helps them to be less “I always right.”
Restricted or Repetitive Behaviors
Hand flapping or stimming can often be triggered by nervousness or excitement. It can be a nervous tick. Sadly, it can be more troubling for some people, like the little boy who banged his head, as a strategy.
One little boy I know flaps his hands and can explain that he did it because he wanted to try to feel himself inside his body as if stress made him feel outside. This is backed up by the fact that other children might eat spicy foods to stimulate themselves too.
The beauty of essential oils is that they can be used as a positive form of stimming. They lend themselves well to being wafted about and can be used as a positive reinforcement for stimming.
Stimming is usually not harmful, and there is no need to suppress it unless it can lead to injury. Even in the case of headbanging, helmets are available. Karen Wang, author of the book My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities, believes that any time a caregiver takes a stim away, the child will likely replace it with a new one.
Further, there is an argument to be made that re-enforcing successes with positive stims rewards children in their language.
Essential Oils for Autism Stimming
Over time, your person should be able to choose which oil will give them the positive feedback they will enjoy. After all, it's a language many understand and are comforted by.
To begin with, though, I’d go with base notes. Mimic what the little lad had told me. Could you help them to feel more in their body? So to reiterate, good examples are vetiver, myrrh and sandalwood.
A warning here is that everyone’s senses have crossovers; this is called cross-modal perception, where we salivate when we smell something, for example.
Be careful of leaving oil bottles around near taste seekers.
Reliance on Routine
Asperger’s people, or Aspies as they call themselves, often tend to walk on tiptoes. If the routine were broken, it would be as if Andy couldn't move forward. He’d dance back and forth on his tiptoes with his hands flapping. We used to call it “veloceraptering,” after the dinosaur he loved, so he could visualize what he was doing.
I remember one day when the bathroom was undergoing some repairs and so he could not do his routine of showering when he came in from school. He veloceraptered for hours outside the bathroom with all the floorboards up.
He knew it made no sense to do it, but he could not work out what to do next if he hadn't had his shower yet.
I get it. I love a routine, which has served me well in raising three children, two of them neurodivergent.
Again, chamomile should help them fixate on it a bit less, but routine with your oils is how you will be most successful.
Associate certain oils with certain routines if you can.
Cross-Modal Considerations for Essential Oils for Autism
I’m reminded of Christopher in The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Nighttime and how he always needed white dinners. If I were to think of an oil that reminds me of white, I’d go with jasmine or vanilla.
Diffusing these while you are eating reinforces a landscape of white for mealtimes.
(Contrast that to how wrong orange would be here because orange oil smells like the color and taste of oranges)
Taking a jasmine sniffy stick might be helpful if you need to eat somewhere unfamiliar.
It deserves reinforcement that allowing your person to make the associations for themselves is key.
Remember to go right back to point 1 in the list
“How does it make you feel?”
Jasmine feels like lunchtime.
See? Told you everyone is different.
A Final Word
I hope this article about how to use essential oils for autism has been helpful, both from the point of view of letting you know you are not alone in this and some ideas for moving forward.
You might also find How to Make a Calm Kit from essential oils for autism helpful.
Please also leave notes about using essential oils for autism in the comments. You never know; your tips could help someone.