Massage And Autism

How Indian Head Massage May Benefit the Neurodiverse

By Giuliana Fenwick



An introduction to myself and my specialized work with the neurodiverse

As a newcomer to this site, let me firstly introduce myself.

My name is Giuliana Fenwick, author of ‘Indian Head Massage for Special Needs‘, a specialist therapist, teacher and public speaker. Best of all, I’m mother to Ollie, my autistic son, and it is wholly due to his bravery and hugeness of heart that I am blessed to be doing the important work I do today.

A fully qualified complementary therapist all my adult working life, albeit for a short spell in publishing, my skills and expertise were stretched to the limit when Ollie hit an extremely low patch at age 13. Ollie has Asperger’s Syndrome, so is at the “high functioning” end of the spectrum. In my opinion this actually makes him more vulnerable in many respects because his “disability” is often invisible.

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Ollie and I at a recent book signing event- I always feel he should be the one signing copies and he frequently does now! (James Alexander photography)

From the minute he was born I knew he was “different”; he seemed to be in a perpetual state of overwhelm, was slow to speak, was very literal in his understanding, when he did speak, he used very articulate, almost antiquated language, struggled socially and could seem very isolated. He also had passions/obsessions, the strongest being his tremendous gift of writing. My boy has ink in his veins and a beautiful 3D way of seeing the world. His strengths and gifts far outweigh the challenges. My life is full and blessed.

As time went on, school and social skills became increasingly difficult. It was no surprise when Ollie was formally diagnosed at 9, but I was determined that he would remain Ollie with all his gifts and potential. He would never become a label.

It quickly became obvious that whilst the schools and the wider community were “aware” of autism, it did not go much beyond that label. I soon found my son surrounded by ignorance, fear, limiting assumptions, and moreover, a total lack of expectation regarding his potential achievements and his future. The fight for my son – and to educate and enlighten others had begun –  and it would change all our lives.

Throughout nursery, primary, and middle school education, I ensured I was in constant communication with every member of staff who came into contact with Ollie. At the start of each academic year, I would find out the names of every teacher and learning assistant who would be involved with my son and I would call a meeting to discuss Ollie’s challenges but also his many strengths and how to best help him flourish. I would hand out postcards of bullet points about his condition along with the positives and strengths. Above all, I kept the communication going all year, never taking my eye off the ball. I never stopped believing in him or his potential. I never let anyone define or limit him. I did this all in a gentle, persistent way so relations were always friendly and open. He was in nine top sets by the time he left middle school and had truly begun to bloom, particularly with his writing.

At 13, he joined the vast mainstream college and the inevitable mainstream exams kicked in. Ollie is very bright but could not negotiate the exam formats of ticking multiple choice boxes and lining up booklets. I fought very hard to access funding for him to sit the exams in a different format. That funding was legally spent elsewhere and Ollie was plunged into bottom sets including for his beloved English: he wasn’t even allowed to attempt the higher paper- thus destroying his dream of studying English at university. I was simply told, “You must accept he will never achieve”.  He unraveled terrifyingly, telling me over and over that he was “broken” and asking for the first time if he was “disabled”. He developed debilitating OCD and other mental health issues. I sent his work off to authors who all wrote back saying he was a “writer already” and to not ever give up. Those authors saved his life. At this point, I began massaging him to reduce his anxiety and distress. The traditional way in which I had been trained was far too aggressive and invasive so together we worked on refining, softening and tailoring it so that it was much more nurturing and supportive. This was to have a deep and instantaneous effect on Ollie.

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Ollie and I just after he sat his exams! He needed a holiday! (James Alexander photography)

So incredible were the results (he had his first long, deep, uninterrupted sleep from the first session for starters) I took it into schools and specialist academies everywhere to help those with autism and on SEN registers. I did it for free at first because no one anywhere was doing this work: it was an unknown quantity and I had to break new ground. I had to prove it worked.

Within six weeks the results were so tremendous I was being paid, and within six months had such long waiting lists I registered my therapy and teaching with the CMA so I could train others. Within the year I was writing articles about my work nationally and was training parents, professionals and even charities all over the UK and Europe.

Ollie went on to prove all his doubters wrong and achieved 10 A-C grades first time and got his maths the second time around. He starts reading a degree in creative writing and publishing at his first choice university in September. The psychologist whom Ollie had to see throughout his exams, and who had to conduct all his visits at our home because Ollie was too ill to go to hospital, said we had changed his life and how he now sees autism: “Here was a bright and able boy totally disabled by the mainstream system.” Ollie left a lasting impression on his college and the way autism spectrum is now viewed.

So How Do My Massage Techniques Work?

The key to it all is placing the “client” in control of the entire treatment, showing them where you work and then making that space to listen to if and how they want each technique. By placing them in charge, empowering from the very start, you then progress at their pace, working “with” rather than “on” them and earning their trust. If a child or young person (or adult!) feels heard and supported, trust is built and boundaries and fear melt away. You can then get to work!

At work in one of my academies (James Alexander photography)

At work in one of my academies (James Alexander photography)

Short term the results are visible pretty much immediately. As the recipient is flooded with serotonin and dopamine (the “happy” and “pleasure” hormones), feelings of calm and wellbeing are instantly being released. Dopamine particularly helps with sleep, attention, focus, learning, confidence, clear thinking, memory and behaviour to name just a few.

As the vagus nerve is stimulated through areas like the ear and below the occiput bone, blood pressure and heart rate are immediately lowered and a deeper, more restful sleep promoted.
The “fight, freeze or flight” state of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system is massaged into the more restful, calm and peaceful parasympathetic state. More about this in later blogs!  I can’t wait to share all this amazing stuff with you!

The buildup of frustration, anger and fear are also dissipated as the body calms and the stomach meridians leading to the enteric brain in the gut where we “bottle things up” are worked on.

Long term the benefits are truly tremendous as fears and barriers melt away. Better deeper sleep promotes feelings of the ability to cope and function. Physically the immune system is stimulated so health is improved. Feeling well helps with those feelings of being able to cope and achieve too. The executive brain functions accessed through the frontal lobe primarily, encourage and stimulate not only speech, but judgment, weighing up consequences, prioritizing, problem solving, self-control and concentration. The parietal lobes store language, comprehension, sensory association and clear thinking. Areas for empathy and reading and processing faces are stored in the temporal lobes. The occipital lobe deals with association and coordination and has an area just above the medulla oblongata (the hollow below where the neck joins the skull bone) which helps stimulate eye contact! It’s fascinating and long term regular massage helps with all of this – I have fast approaching 1,000 case studies to monitor this.

Long term the results are truly humbling as you watch the child open up, relax, trust, acclimate to touch, and start to embrace life and try new things.

I cannot wait to share with you some of my massage techniques and explain how and why they work so beautifully over my next few blogs. It’s fascinating!

Author Image

Giuliana Fenwick is an author (“Indian Head Massage for Special Needs” by Jessica Kingsley publishing, available from Amazon ) , a writer for various national and international publications and autism websites , a specialist therapist working extensively with children and young adults on the autism spectrum and with special needs , a teacher/trainer , fundraiser and international public speaker .
Most importantly she is a mother to a beautiful ,courageous , gifted autistic son, Ollie.
For more information, visit her website: