Susannah Kirkman looks at the claims made for massage and other alternative therapies
The use of complementary therapies in special education is booming. Schools are using techniques as diverse as Bach flower remedies, Hopi ear therapy, diet, aromatherapy and massage.
"Complementary therapies are woven through our education and well-being programme," says Stephanie Lord, principal of Heathermount learning centre in Ascot, which takes students on the autistic spectrum and uses massage and Sherbourne movement (see box). "These approaches bring a deeper learning because they make you think about who you are and how you relate to others."
AIDS TO RELAXATION
Pupils with autism are particularly prone to stress and anxiety and can benefit from calming techniques, says Maggie Rigg, a principal with the Hesley group of schools, which focus on the autistic spectrum.
"Pupils may find a massage or aromatherapy relaxing at bedtime," she says.
Some children with autism also enjoy riding, which helps to develop social skills, too.
The Kingston centre pupil referral unit in Wolverhampton uses a range of therapies with students who have emotional and behavioural difficulties.
These include a flower essence system called phytobiophysics, holistic counselling and a special dog-training programme.
Linda Porter, a teacher and complementary therapist who has pioneered "holistic educational therapy" (see resources), says it helps young people improve their behaviour, and involves families.
Therapies that enhance pupils' quality of life and encourage them to adapt their behaviour can be valuable, says Dr Richard Mills, research director at the National Autistic Society (NAS). They can be a useful adjunct to a structured care and education curriculum. However, he is deeply suspicious of approaches that claim to offer cures or dramatic improvements in any particular learning disability.
"A lot of people are pushing claims for cures and improvements, but rigorous evaluation of alternative therapies is markedly lacking," he says.
Projects are often evaluated by the people carrying them out; some techniques are practised differently according to the setting; and the placebo effect is often apparent.
Parents looking for a cure for their child's condition are particularly vulnerable. "If parents have mortgaged their home to pay for therapy they are bound to see positive effects," says Mills. "We recently interviewed Maltese parents who had taken their children to Cyprus to receive amino-acid therapy. The parents reported wonderful results but we saw no differences at all."
A few therapies can harm children, warns Mills. Facilitated communication, a US system developed for children with autism, has caused considerable damage to some participants, and no one yet knows the long-term effects of exclusion diets or massive vitamin supplements.
Therapies can quickly swing in and out of fashion. Secretin, a hormone derived from pigs that was injected into children with autism, has now fallen from favour and has been shown to have no positive effect.
The NAS set up Research Autism, an independent charity that aims to find out which therapies are promising, after a recent survey of its members, found parents wanted research into diet and supplements.
WHAT CHILDREN WANT
It is essential to balance the interests of children and parents, cautions Eddy Jackson, head of Highfurlong school, Blackpool, which caters for pupils with physical disabilities.
"Parents want their child to learn to walk, but there are some extreme programmes being sold and it's important to listen to the young people," he says. "They may not want to be in a 10-hours-a-day scheme."
The British Complementary Medicine Association advises schools to check therapists' qualifications. "We would expect a therapist to be a member of a therapeutic organisation that has a code of conduct, disciplinary procedures and a code of ethics," says a spokeswoman.
Chiropractors and osteopaths are subject to government regulation, and this will soon be extended to practitioners of acupuncture, homeopathy, Raiki and herbal medicine .
The association also says that training for therapists should follow a core curriculum established by the relevant professional group - a view endorsed by Mills.
"It is totally unacceptable for the children with the most complex needs in our society to be left in the charge of the least qualified people," he says.
* For information about Research Autism, contact Richard Mills on 0117 974 8402
* Information on massage is at associationformassageinschools.org.uk