Body Brushing: An Effective Treatment to Help Autistic Children with Sensory Processing Disorder

Dry brushing is all the rage at spas these days. You can even buy special brushes to do it yourself at home. It’s supposed to be good for your skin, for detoxing and promoting a stronger immune system, and to balance the flow of lymph throughout your body. But did you know there’s another kind of body brushing technique? It’s used to help people who have something called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD.) The disorder is commonly seen in people who have autism, and so this other brushing protocol is often taught to the parents of autistic children.

My autistic son had a lot of sensory issues when he was small, so our occupational therapist prescribed the Wilbarger Thera-Pressure method and taught me how to do the brushing protocol at home. It’s best if you think of the brushing technique the same way you would a medication. It is prescribed and carried out under the supervision of a trained therapist (usually your child’s OT.) And you have to stick to the schedule for it to work. This means brushing your child’s body every 90-120 minutes throughout the day.

Equipment and Preparation for Brushing Your Autistic Child

The brushing protocol uses a soft surgical brush that you can buy from your child’s occupational therapist or from a medical supply company. You will need to replace the brush regularly as it wears out, so you may want to buy several at once. I used to get my brushes from the OT in packs of 6. They’re quite inexpensive, and the only equipment you need to do the brushing.

You will need to learn the brushing protocol from a trained therapist, who will probably ask you to practise it under supervision at first. There are certain rules to follow about how hard to press on the brush, which direction you should brush in, and so on. Be sure you understand the protocol before you try to use the brushing technique at home. Your OT will probably give you a hand-out to help you remember what to do.

The brushing works best when done directly on the skin or through fairly light clothes. It won’t work through thick clothing like sweaters, jeans, or warm pyjamas. So you may need to remove some of your child’s clothing. You will also need a space where your child can sit or lie down comfortably. You can have him sit on the floor beside you, or he can sit on a kitchen chair or at the edge of a bed.

Therapeutic Brushing and Joint Compressions

Typically, parents of autistic children are taught to brush several parts of the body: the arms and hands, the back, and the legs and feet. The brushing protocol is followed by a series of joint compressions along the arms and legs, which is why the Wilbarger protocol is sometimes called the Deep Pressure and Proprioceptive Technique, or DPPT. The entire protocol is demonstrated in this video. It may look as if the child is bothered by the brushing or the compressions, but autistic kids find the technique soothing when it’s done properly.

Benefits of Therapeutic Brushing for Autistic Children

The goal of the brushing protocol is to help the autistic child’s nervous system to better organize itself. Brushing and joint compressions help the child get a better feel for where his body is in space.

My autistic son was soothed when we did the brushing. In just minutes, he would go from a period of intense activity to a state of calm alertness. The brushing helped him to get a better sense of his own body and over time it eliminated a lot of his sensory defensiveness. He went from having a low tolerance to being touched, especially to light touches, to being able to tolerate and even appreciate most kinds of touching (hugs, holding hands, tickling, etc.)

Therapeutic brushing can help an autistic child to better transition from one activity to another, which is definitely appreciated by everyone in his entourage! It may even help him to focus better. And if your child has some of the sensory quirks common among autistic children, like not wanting to wear clothing or maybe wearing heavy clothes in the heat of summer, brushing him will help with that too.

Precautions for Parents of Autistic Kids

The Wilbarger brushing protocol should only be used if you’ve been trained because doing it wrong can cause more harm than good. And it’s intended to be part of a complete sensory diet, as prescribed by your child’s occupational therapist. You may also be using other means to apply pressure to help your child, for example, a deep pressure vest, a weighted vest or blanket, or a weighted lap pad that can be used in school or at the supper table.

Only a trained professional like an occupational therapist can diagnose a sensory processing disorder. And only a professional who has taken specific training in the Wilbarger method can prescribe and teach you the brushing protocol. If your autistic child has sensory issues, be sure to get the proper diagnosis and training before you try to use this brushing technique.

Sensory Processing Disorder: Many autistic children have serious sensory issues that can be helped with a simple dry brushing technique. Ask your child’s OT!

Therapeutic brushing protocols take just a few minutes every 2 hours. They can help autistic kids overcome even very severe sensory problems.
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Disclaimer: The author is the parent of an autistic child and writes from personal experience. The description of the brushing technique in this article is for informational purposes only. If you think you or your child can benefit from the treatment, please see a qualified professional.

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Original content © 2016 Kyla Matton Osborne


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    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      A lot of people have sensory issues and don’t realize it. A lot of folks can be helped by the brushing, as well as by other really simple activities that an OT can tell you about. Usually, the OT who works with an autistic child will prescribe an entire sensory diet, a sort of day-long plan that includes lots of sensory play and activities designed to help the child deal with the information from their different senses.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      Brushing can make a really big difference for kids who need it. Some parents say their child is more verbal after being brushed. Others find that the child’s ability to focus or to transition from one activity to another are greatly increased. It’s such a simple thing we can do for them, but so valuable to learn from a trained therapist!

  1. Profile photo of Pat Z Anthony
    Pat Z Anthony

    It is wonderful that your son was helped by therapeutic brushing. Dry body brushing is something we are familiar with and have used for years to help with natural healing. The brushes you mention can be found online as well.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      Yes, the brushes are now available pretty much everywhere. They are not the same brushes used for dry body brushing, though. They’re surgical brushes with very fine, soft bristles. Once the bristles start to bend, the brush needs to be replaced. Even one bent bristle can interfere with the therapeutic value of the brushing, so it’s important to have extra brushes on hand all the time.

  2. Profile photo of Olivia Morris
    Olivia Morris

    This is something I have heard about but did not fully understand. Thank you for helping me further my information about Autism and how parent’s can make a difference by following protocols set up for their needs.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      I’m not sure whether the “why” behind the brushing protocol is fully understood by anyone. The brushing protocol has been used successfully for decades, though. Many families swear by it, and most occupational therapists who work with autistic kids will use it.

      We do know that firm touch helps anyone who has sensory defensiveness or sensory modulation issues. And we know that touch, in general, can be both soothing and invigorating. It’s an important part of our development, which is why children raised without sufficient physical contact can be developmentally delayed.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      There are so many autistic people in the world, but most folks know very little about autism. It’s great that people like you want to learn more. Awareness and understanding make the world a better place for kids like my son 🙂

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      In a way, yes. But the touching is very different. The whole protocol takes only 2-5 minutes to complete, unlike a massage which can take 30-60 minutes. The brushing doesn’t go deep into the muscle, either. It’s aimed at the skin and the nervous system.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      I thought the brushing technique might interest you, @swalia. There are a lot of other strategies that special needs parents and occupational therapists can use (like therapeutic listening and the use of a Snoezelen room) that I think might appeal to you, as well.

  3. Profile photo of Jean B Figues
    Jean B Figues

    i never heard of it…thanks for sharing.. i don’t know why but i would always try to prevent myself reading about or even seeing children with autism. it leaves a pain in my heart … but anyway, thanks for sharing this information

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      I am glad you were able to read about the brushing technique. I hope it didn’t make you sad.

      I want you to know that autism isn’t a sad thing, though there are people who do act like it is – even groups that claim to advocate for autistic people. Autism is sometimes very difficult to live with, but autistic people are often very intelligent and talented. They are simply “wired” differently than the average person, and they experience the world differently because of it. I know a lot of really happy autistic people – my son included 😀

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      Yes, there are a good many strategies that help autistic people to live a better life. The brushing is a common therapy with children, and there are a lot of other sensory therapies for children and adults too.

  4. Profile photo of Linda Jenkinson
    Linda Jenkinson

    I used to work in spas and have heard of dry brushing for detoxing, etc. It is wonderful to move the lymph through the body as well- Who knew it could be used in this ultra- therapeutic way to help the autistic child. Digestive enzymes and probiotics are also supposed to help with the autistic child as many issues can originate from the gut! Excellent post!

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      The dry brushing done in spas is, I believe, a fair bit deeper than therapeutic brushing. The brushes used are also more coarse. Therapeutic brushing involves a very soft surgical brush. It’s done with a firm stroke, but not terribly deeply. It feels very different from dry brushing with a vegetable fibre brush. It wouldn’t exfoliate your skin, or anything like that.

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