National Autism Awareness Month

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and this is an opportunity to showcase the ways in which Chinese medicine helps to serve different populations. When working with autism spectrum patients many can struggle with speech, touch, and sensory processing. As practitioners, we have many tools to help navigate these aspects of working with autism spectrum patients while providing a comfortable and safe environment in our offices.


Autism spectrum patients may find it difficult to process information quickly to respond to lengthy questioning. Perhaps they may be able to process the questioning and information but find it challenging to communicate appropriate/accurate responses in real time. The beauty of Chinese medicine is the ability to treat someone without requiring them to dive deep into conversation or answer questions to check off the symptom/presentation needed to write a formal diagnosis, which may be the case in a western medical setting. If a patient struggles with verbal communication or they are nonverbal but read or write and consent to treatment, there are tools at our disposal to use for intake. This includes pulse diagnosis, tongue diagnosis, facial reading, and channel palpation. These tools all provide great diagnostic insight of the patient's current pathology. Utilizing pulse and tongue diagnosis has been a great way to form a diagnosis and treatment plan without requiring an autism spectrum patient to verbally communicate in depth responses if they prefer not to or are unable to. As a practitioner treating autism spectrum patients, I will still communicate with the patient what I am going to do and ensure an appropriate form of consent prior to placing my hands on their wrist for pulse diagnosis or any kind of physical touch, just as I would for all my patients. Physical cues for consent could be the patient rolling up their sleeves/bottom of pant leg, extending their arms out on the table or a head nod. The patient may also have a notebook where they write responses and consent to treatment.

Touch/sensory processing:

Acupuncture in its nature is a very hands-on treatment and some autism spectrum patients can be quite adverse to touch. There may also be difficulty in perception to pain or difficulty pinpointing exact locations of the sensation they could be experiencing. In our intake, if pulse diagnosis is not an option due to the inability to touch the patient; facial diagnosis and tongue diagnosis are extremely useful. In addition, any notes, or letters that the patient may have written ahead of time, or conversations during intake can be helpful in determining a diagnosis.

During treatment, if we cannot touch a patient to insert needles, the use of photobiomodulation or low-level laser therapy can be very useful. While some autism spectrum patients may also be averse to bright light, every patient should be wearing appropriate eyewear and the light should not be shining toward their face during any laser therapy treatment. Low-level laser therapy can stimulate acupuncture points and provide a similar treatment for a patient as if needles were being used. Photobiomodulation is very well tolerated and has few contraindications. In addition to stimulating the acupuncture points selected for treatment, the low-level laser is a wonderful modality for pain relief as it increases blood circulation and cell proliferation.

Autism Healthcare Toolkit:

Academic-Autistic Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education (AASPIRE) has created a survey for autism spectrum patients called the Autism Healthcare Accommodations Tool (AHAT). This survey asks questions pertaining to their communication preferences, how they best understand and receive information, if they have any particular triggers, preferences for exams, use of equipment, and helpful ways to understand the patient before, during, and after treatment. The patient would fill out the survey or have a family/support member assist in completing the survey and bring the completed survey to their first visit. This provides us as practitioners with extremely valuable information to allow for the most comfortable, safe, and productive environment for their treatment. 

Lindsay Campbell LAC, MAOM, Dipl.OM, AIT

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