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 Compression
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.
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.
Are you a special needs parent with something to say? Share your experience on the comment section below. You might also be interested on my article about how autism affects the whole family.