Massage therapy for children with autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review

J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 Mar;72(3):406-11. doi: 10.4088/JCP.09r05848whi. Epub 2010 Dec 28.


Objective: We aimed to assess the effectiveness of massage as a treatment option for autism.

Data sources: We searched the following electronic databases using the time of their inception through March 2010: MEDLINE, AMED, CINAHL, EMBASE, PsycINFO, Health Technology Assessment, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, 6 Korean medical databases (KSI, DBpia, KISTEP, RISS, KoreaMed, and National Digital Library), China Academic Journal (through China National Knowledge Infrastructure), and 3 Japanese medical databases (Journal@rchive, Science Links Japan, and Japan Science & Technology link). The search phrase used was "(massage OR touch OR acupressure) AND (autistic OR autism OR Asperger's syndrome OR pervasive developmental disorder)." The references in all located articles were also searched. No language restrictions were imposed.

Study selection: Prospective controlled clinical studies of any type of massage therapy for autistic patients were included. Trials in which massage was part of a complex intervention were also included. Case studies, case series, qualitative studies, uncontrolled trials, studies that failed to provide detailed results, and trials that compared one type of massage with another were excluded.

Data extraction: All articles were read by 2 independent reviewers (M.S.L. and J-I.K.), who extracted data from the articles according to predefined criteria. Risk of bias was assessed using the Cochrane classification.

Results: Of 132 articles, only 6 studies met our inclusion criteria. One randomized clinical trial found that massage plus conventional language therapy was superior to conventional language therapy alone for symptom severity (P < .05) and communication attitude (P < .01). Two randomized clinical trials reported a significant benefit of massage for sensory profile (P < .01), adaptive behavior (P < .05), and language and social abilities (P < .01) as compared with a special education program. The fourth randomized clinical trial showed beneficial effects of massage for social communication (P < .05). Two nonrandomized controlled clinical trials suggested that massage therapy is effective. However, all of the included trials have high risk of bias. The main limitations of the included studies were small sample sizes, predefined primary outcome measures, inadequate control for nonspecific effects, and a lack of power calculations or adequate follow-up.

Conclusions: Limited evidence exists for the effectiveness of massage as a symptomatic treatment of autism. Because the risk of bias was high, firm conclusions cannot be drawn. Future, more rigorous randomized clinical trials seem to be warranted.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / therapy
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Massage*
  • Treatment Outcome