Beginning with the ancient Egyptians, essential oils are one of the oldest forms of natural medicine. They were a commonplace in ancient Greek, Roman and Asian cultures. For those before us, essential oils have been used as a daily practice in their personal hygiene, to remedy ailments, and for aromatherapy.
Today, with little-published research about the use of essential oils for children and minimal guidance from the medical community in its use for developmental disorders, it’s hard to know where to start.
When considering essential oils specifically as a treatment for autism and ADHD, there isn’t a lot of research out there. We are deviating from FDA approved methods in an attempt to find what “works” for our children to help them be successful in living a full life.
Essential oils are oils taken from plants in a super concentrated form; made from plant parts such as flowers, herbs, blossoms, roots, leaves, bark, rinds.
Manufacturers use different types of methods to concentrate them into oils, the most common method of distraction uses steam through a process known as distillation. Other processes such as expression, solvent extraction, absolute oil extraction, resin tapping, and cold pressing can be used as well.
For many people, essential oils can offer wellness benefits – boosting the immune system, soothing sore muscles, calming the digestive system, improving focus/concentration, and promoting sleep and relaxation. The aroma of essential oils targets the limbic system of the brain, which regulates mood and emotions.
Essential oils can be used to enhance a massage, improve skin and hair, clean your home, and support general wellness practices.
Sold in a liquid form, essential oils can be used in a diffuser, added to baths, taken orally, rubbed onto the skin, used as a suppository, sniffed, or sprayed onto clothing or bedding.
Application and use depend on the type of oil. Some essential oils can be dangerous to ingest or apply directly to the skin. Certain oils can be applied to legs and arms but are not to be used in the mouth, nose or across mucous membranes.
Edible oils are meant to be ingested, like cumin, some citrus oils and cinnamon (in combination with a probiotic), but not applied topically. Chamomile oil is most effective when sniffed in a vapor form, or to drink in a tea.
It sounds difficult to keep track of all the idiosyncrasies of essential oils. It’s important to do your research.
Recommendations are often to start with using an essential oil 2-3 times a day initially and reducing to once per day over time.
Err on the side of caution. Don’t use essential oils orally with children unless you are working with a medical professional. It’s just too risky.
In general, for oils that are applied topically, it’s important to dilute them in a carrier oil (often coconut, grapeseed, sunflower, jojoba, or even high-quality olive oil). You can also put them into a bath gel or cream and know the concentration amount for the individual.
When trying to determine how much essential oil to use with a child, it is dependent on a few things: age, weight, and the type of essential oil being used.
Since our article is geared for the use of essential oils in children with autism and ADHD, we recommend either 0.5% dilution or 1% dilution. To learn more about how to dilute essential oils for children, read this article.
Remember that children are more sensitive to the use of essential oils than adults are.
It is ALWAYS important to consult a trusted source for each individual oil and consider consulting with your child’s health care provider.
Diffusing essential oils is easy and offers so many benefits, including helping rid your home of not-so-nice odors, getting rid of airborne bacteria, and it is the easiest way for the oil molecules to get into your bloodstream so you can reap the benefits quicker!
There are so many ways to diffuse essential oils in your home. One of our favorite ways is by using an ultrasonic cool mist diffuser. You place just a few drops of the oil into a small water reservoir. Through the vibrations of a membrane inside the diffuser, the water molecules are broken down and turned into a vapor bringing the oil molecules with it.
A great example of the benefits of diffusing essential oil is making it part of your child’s bedtime routine. Using lavender oil is recommended to help reduce stress and induce calm. Try diffusing this while prepping your child for bed. Have calming music, books, and cuddles while the lavender oil is dispersed in the air. Make sure to remove the diffuser from your child’s bedroom if he or she is awake.
To learn about all the different ways of diffusing essential oils check out this article. Remember that when diffusing essential oils, start with 30-60 minutes and then stop for at least an hour.
Information about supplemental therapies such as exercise, nutrition, and mindfulness have made their way as a commonplace approach to helping children with autism or ADHD; in the home, schools, and treatment spaces. The testimony of their impact can’t be ignored.
In a time where many parents want to consider pharmaceutical intervention as a lastresort for conditions, alternative therapies are becoming easier to access. Using essential oils for autism or ADHD is one alternative therapy that may be worth trying.
Even though there is limited research published on efficacy studies in children for these specific disorders, parents are sharing stories and literature is being written to support their use.
As with the use of CBD oil, essential oils aren’t regulated and true research and clinical testing in children hasn’t happened yet. Still, the accolades of parents who validate the use of essential oils with their children with ASD or ADHD can’t be ignored.
Although it is not a treatment or cure for autism or ADHD, some of the symptoms and typical struggles can be improved. With these disorders, soft skills can be difficult to measure - falling and staying asleep, tolerating periods of transition, remaining focused and attentive to learn, and staying calm to socialize and play. There are dozens of essential oils on the market to target different concerns.
The one published research study in 2001 by Dr. Terry Freidman involved children diagnosed with ADHD who were given essential oils to treat their symptoms. Vetiver, cedarwood and lavender oils were used separately in 18 children 3 times per day over a one month period to improve attention and focus. The essential oil with the most promising outcomes was vetiver oil, as measured by EEG.
There seem to be hundreds of different types of essential oils, and there are probably more that we don’t know about yet. This list, although not exhaustive, includes some of the most used for children with autism and ADHD.
Remember that there are essential oils not recommend for children. You can find out more here.
Lavender oil – widely known for its calming properties, it is antioxidant rich, reducing anxiety and emotional stress, improving quality of sleep, but also helpful in treating burns, wounds, headaches and diabetes
Peppermint oil – offering a cooling sensation, it boosts mental focus and when used midday can help to increase energy, but also having calming effect in the body. Known to help with bad breath and digestive issues, respiratory difficulty and is soothing for muscles. Peppermint is safe for children ages 6 and older.
Vetiver oil – known as the “oil of tranquility” is often combined with lavender to promote emotional balance, it calms and focuses the mind. Medically it is an antiseptic and antispasmodic, helps with healing of wounds and scars as well as inflammation. For those with ADHD, it is known to help with distractibility, increase concentration and impatience.
Mandarin oil – another type that combines well with lavender, it is quieting. Treats acne, insomnia, gut issues, helpful in certain types of cancer, it is antimicrobial, and anti-tumor. Good starter for kids who prefer orange flavors/scents
Chamomile – taken in a tea or oil, soothes and comforts. Found to be very effective to be relaxing and calming. Its properties can be anti-inflammatory and pain reducing, can relieve congestion, digestion, help with cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Sandalwood oil – offers properties that are anti-inflammatory, anti-aging and anti-viral. Improves mental clarity, and has a calming and relaxing effect on children with autism.
Cedarwood oil– can be used to treat eczema and other skin issues, it too has a calming and relaxing effect. Studies have shown that it increases the release of serotonin and production of melatonin, helping to promote sleep – helpful for any child struggling in this area.
Eucalyptus – relieves mental exhaustion and stimulates blood flow to the brain. Eucalyptus is safe for children ages 6 and older.
Lemon – known to improve mood and helpful in preventing emotional outbursts.
Rosemary oil– when used during cognitive tests has helped with speed and accuracy.
Frankincense – offers immune support, antibacterial and antifungal properties. In those with ADHD, it can help with focus, reduces stress reactions and negativity.
Bergamot – antidepressive qualities, acts as a mood enhancer, both energizing and promotes a calming effect in ASD and ADHD as it reduces stress and anxiety.
Patchouli– heavy odor, calms the nervous system, sometimes used to control anxiety or fight depression. Historically used to help with skin care, fight infection, and relieve digestive issues.
Ylang ylang – floral scent, sedates and calms the emotions.
As essential oils are not regulated by the FDA, it is important to be informed when purchasing them. With so many plants, extraction methods, and manufacturers making essential oils, it can be difficult to know what qualities are ideal to look for.
Poor production processes and the addition of synthetic oils can negatively impact the quality of essential oils, causing unpleasant side effects or ineffective treatment. Know the manufacturer, look for additives, and be aware of allergies and sensitivities.
Some manufacturers use terms like “therapeutic grade” or “aromatherapy grade” – but this does not mean that they are any more regulated than others on the market. The multi-level marketing companies selling essential oils can seem to make education and access to essential oils easier for the consumer, but they too are unregulated.
While some have labels that read “therapeutic grade” or “aromatherapy grade”, they still do not have FDA approved regulations to say so. Overall, the intentions of reputable companies seem to be good when printing these claims on their labels, but buyers beware.
For any oil, concentration is important, and while some expensive oils are often diluted with vegetable oil, make sure it’s a reputable company and test a small area of your skin first.
For example, citrus oils can be dangerous if they’re applied before being in the sun. Eucalyptus and sage oils are safe to be inhaled/applied topically, but can cause seizures if ingested. It’s important to consult with and share use of essential oils with medical professionals.
Some oils impact absorption of other medications and have side effects that need to be monitored.
Still others are contraindicated for children and elderly, especially for children under 6 and there are some that shouldn’t be used during pregnancy, as they can permeate the placenta and be dangerous to a developing fetus.
Storage of essential oils is important – and should be in a child-safe, baby proof cabinet far from reach. Dark, glass containers are recommended for storage over plastic; the chemical composition can change and potentially could become toxic otherwise.
Monitor your child’s skin if used topically. Essential oils should not be applied to broken skin or any highly sensitive areas.
As with any new topical, start with a small inconspicuous area for a few applications. Watch for any skin changes as you apply and use essential oils over time. Avoid the face, especially in children. A good rule of thumb is to start with the minimum; don't overdo it.
Aromatherapists are knowledgeable and can be very helpful in making recommendations for individuals or for specific conditions. Although it is easy to find lots of information on the web about essential oils, consider working with a professional who knows more than you do.
Make sure you do your research and have a trusted source- the profession doesn’t require training or license by law. You can find a trained provider through the National Association for Aromatherapy.
As with any new treatment modality, it is important to measure and track how your child is responding to the use of essential oils. The first step is to consult with your child’s healthcare provider, to discuss risks, potential interactions or contraindications.
It might make sense to focus on one type of oil at a time, develop a calendar or checklist to chart how long it is in use, the dosage, and impact. A simple rating scale could be helpful for a parent, teacher or even the child to complete to track behavior or how it made the child feel.
When ordering supplies from the internet or your local stores, consider all the options. The choices for diffusers, sprayers, rollers and carrier oils/creams are endless. There is even a line of essential oil jewelry – these bracelets are available for those who benefit from their use on-the-go.
Essential oils have been around for thousands of years, helping ancient civilizations with hygiene, ailments and general wellness practices. Although nothing new historically, their use is growing in popularity for treating symptoms of autism and ADD/ADHD.
While there is limited research in using essential oils in children, it’s hard to ignore the testimonials from parents in helping improve soft skills like transitions, sleeping and remaining calm and focused.
When using essential oils, it’s important to be informed about the manufacturer and their process, the oil application or dispersion and dose, and the specific safety guidelines for use with children. As with any new treatment, it’s important to consult the child’s health care provider.
Molly Shaw Wilson MS OTR/L BCP is a board-certified pediatric occupational therapist with 16 years experience. She owns a private practice and provides service in homes, community and school settings, as well as her outpatient sensory clinic. Molly enjoys working with young children and their families, focusing on parent-child interactions and home routines. She is a regular contributor to a parent blog about typical development. Her professional interests have stemmed from her certificate work in assistive technology, hippotherapy practice, and consultation to a nature-based program in New Hampshire. To find out more about Molly, please visit her website at www.trainingwheelsnh.com
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