Updated by:
Carolina Arguello, BA, ASAT Extern

Essential oils for autism treatmentEssential oils are liquids extracted from a variety of plants. The oil is extracted from the bark, fruit, flowers, or leaves. The main method for extracting these essential oils is distillation, though various other methods can be used including expression, enfleurage, maceration, solvent extraction, and carbon dioxide extraction (Bakkali et al., 2008). After the extraction of the aromatic chemicals, they are combined with carrier oils to prepare for use. Essential oils are commonly used through diffusers (i.e., inhalation) or applied topically to the skin (Sindle & Martin, 2020). The goal of this treatment summary is to provide clear evidence-based information on the state of the science regarding essential oils for families and professionals who may be considering their use in the treatment of autism.

Research Summary:
Presently there is no scientific, evidence-based research on the use of essential oils as a treatment for autism. Essential oils, though not found as a treatment for autism, may work as a preferred sensory-based experience and individuals may have different preferences toward a preferred scent (Fitzgerald, 2007); however it is important to note that general research findings on essential oils demonstrate that these oils can become toxic and cause adverse effects. Effects reported are skin irritation (Ilona, 2018), seizures (Stafstrom, 2007), and allergic reactions (Uter, 2010). Due to the findings of risks and side effects noted above, and a lack of research on the topic, essential oils cannot be deemed a scientific or evidence-based treatment for individuals with autism.

Professionals should present essential oils as an untested treatment for autism to families and encourage them to consider this information and the effects of essential oils carefully. Essential oils should not be recommended or used as a treatment for autism. We encourage our readers to beware of treatments backed by bold claims and testimonials. Researchers may want to investigate claims made on essential oils to further examine their use.

Selected References

Systematic reviews of scientific studies: Not applicable; please note that recent task force reports also did not reference essential oils (Steinbrenner et al., 2020; Whitehouse et al., 2020).

Selected scientific study: None.

Selected reports of side-effects:

Ilona, C. (2018). The comparison of skin irritation level between topical cajeput oil and telon oil: A pilot study. Journal of General Procedural Dermatology and Venereology Indonesia, 2(3), 111-115. https://doi.org/10.19100/jdvi.v2i3.91

Stafstrom, C. (2007). Seizures in a 7-month-old child after exposure to the essential plant oil thuja. Pediatric Neurology37(6), 446-448. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pediatrneurol.2007.07.008

Uter, S. (2010). Contact allergy to essential oils: current patch test results (2000–2008) from the Information Network of Departments of Dermatology (IVDK). Contact Dermatitis63(5), 277–283. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0536.2010.01768.x

Position Statements and Warnings:

Food and Drug Administration (2019). Be aware of potentially dangerous products and therapies that claim to treat autism. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/be-aware-potentially-dangerous-products-and-therapies-claim-treat-autism

References cited above

Bakkali, F., Averbeck, S., Averbeck D., & Idamar, M. (2008). Biological effects of essential oils: A review. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 46(2), 446-475. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2007.09.106

Fitzgerald, C. (2007). The effect of gender and ethnicity on children’s attitudes and preferences for essential oils: A pilot study. Explore (New York, N.Y.)3(4), 378-385. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2007.04.009

Manion, C. R., & Widder, R. M. (2017). Essentials of essential oils. American Journal of Health- System Pharmacy, 74(9), e153-e162. https://doi.org/10.2146/ajhp151043

Sindle, A., & Martin, K. (2020). Essential oils: Natural products not necessarily safe.

Steinbrenner, J. R., Hume, K., Odom, S. L., Morin, K. L., Nowell, S. W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N. S., Yücesoy-Özkan, S., & Savage, M. N. (2020). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team. https://ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/sites/ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/files/imce/documents/EBP%20Report%202020.pdf

Whitehouse, A., Varcin, K., Waddington, H., Sulek, R., Bent, C., Ashburner, J., Eapen, V., Goodall, E., Hudry, K., Roberts, J., Silove, N., Trembath, D. (2020). Interventions for children on the autism spectrum: A synthesis of research evidence. Autism CRC, Brisbane. https://www.autismcrc.com.au/sites/default/files/interventions-evidence/Full_Report_Interventions_for_children_on_the_autism_spectrum_-_A_synthesis_of_research_evidence.pdf

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Citation for this article:

Arguello, C. (2021). A treatment summary of essential oils. Science in Autism Treatment, 18(2).

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