Have You Brushed Your Kid Today?

When my son Kyle, who has autistic disorder, was in preschool, his teacher gave me a little yellow brush with soft bristles and a sponge-like grip. I was told that it was for “brushing,” and that I should brush Kyle’s arms and legs several times each day.

Can Autism, ADHD, and DSI be Brushed Away?

I must confess, I tried it a few times, but eventually abandoned the whole concept. That’s because I had no idea what on earth I was doing. Secretly I thought this might just be somebody’s ridiculous idea or some new-fad treatment that wouldn’t amount to anything. I mean, honestly… brush my child’s arms and legs vigorously several times a day? And that would help with his autism? Please.

However, brushing has become an accepted form of therapy for all kinds of children on the autism spectrum, those with ADHD, or any other child with Sensory Integration Disorder (DSI). It’s specifically designed to help children with tactile dysfunction, or over-sensitivity to touch. When a child has tactile dysfunction, ordinary activities can be torturous, like stepping into a bathtub (the feel of the water is undesirable) wearing certain uncomfortable fabrics, getting or giving hugs, shaking hands, and eating foods with particular textures, etc. Obviously, over-sensitivity to touch makes social situations difficult for these kids, who need to learn to adapt in the real world. When hugs become scary things to a child, something needs to be done.

What is body brushing?

If your child has difficulty with touch, you may want to pursue occupational therapy, and more specifically, a technique called “The Wilbarger Protocol” for Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Patricia Wilbarger, M.Ed., OTR, FAOTA, an internationally recognized expert who specializes in the assessment and treatment of sensory defensiveness, came up with this particular technique. What it involves is a child’s arms, legs, and back being deeply massaged with a specific kind of surgical brush with soft bristles. After several minutes of brushing, deep pressure is then applied to the joints. For the brushing protocol to be effective, it should last for about three minutes and be performed several times each day. It is absolutely vital that the brushing only be done by a person who has been taught the technique by a professional. The face and stomach are never brushed.

How does it work?

The theory is that as the brushing is taking place, millions of tiny receptors in the skin sense the prickling/pressure and send messages to the brain. The brain, over time, becomes accustomed to these messages and learns to “tone down” its response. It’s a similar premise to auditory training, where a child is played sounds through headphones at varying frequencies until the brain acclimates itself to the bothersome ones. Or… have you ever smelled something absolutely foul and then several minutes later couldn’t smell it anymore? Our brains will phase out troubling sensations when we have enough exposure to them.

Simply stated, by giving a child with tactile dysfunction ample exposure to touch via brushing, his brain can become used to it. Therapists report that some children have such a positive response to the therapy that they will seek out the brush and bring it to their parent to request a brushing session. Other children simply tolerate the sessions while they watch TV. Rarely, some children resist the sessions at first but eventually allow them with a little creative coaxing and distraction.

How can I get my child started?

An occupational therapist should be able to instruct you in the Wilbarger Protocol. (There are also instructional videos and audiotapes.) If your child is not receiving occupational therapy, you should request it immediately by scheduling an IEP review through the school district. Or locate your own occupational therapist and ask specifically to be taught this brushing technique. Many parents report overall improvement in their children’s behaviors, their tolerance to tactile input, and their general well-being.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here. Some links on this blog may have been generated by outside sources are not necessarily endorsed by Kristyn Crow.